By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
There is in every disaster a hero, a firefighter racing into a burning building and saving an infant, a passing citizen pulling an injured person out of a fatal car wreck, a police officer stepping into a school massacre and taking down the assailant.
This West Virginia University football season has become a disaster, not of the magnitude previously referred to, but a disaster of the sporting variety, a football fan’s nightmare, one that would be devastating to the program and perhaps the university itself, certainly after another heart-wrenching, 50-49 loss, this on the home field to Oklahoma.
The saving grace was a super hero named Tavon Austin, an unselfish, incredibly athletic football player who knows no limits and who, in the afterlife that is professional football, will be rewarded in ways even the real-life super heroes are not.
Austin was trapped on this sinking ship that is named the Mountaineers, one that now has five losses in a row.
He entered the week as the nation’s leading receiver and one of its best kick returners, the NFL scouts drooling to get their hands on him.
But this week Dana Holgorsen, the WVU coach, had a surprise up his sleeve ... a surprise for Austin and for Oklahoma and coach Bob Stoops.
He would make him a running back.
It was something that had been suggested in this corner quite often in the past, for the idea in football is to get the ball to your most dangerous weapon the most times. As receiver he would catch it 10, 11, maybe 12 times.
This week he got it 21 times as a running back, four more as a receiver, eight more as a kick returner, and what he did in defeat were things that have never ever been done before.
He set the school’s single-game rushing record at 344 yards, breaking Kay-Jay Harris’ record of 337 yards. He had an incredible 572 all-purpose yards, breaking the record set by Garrett Ford in 1965 by 207 yards.
He broke the Big 12 all-purpose record and when he scored twice running the ball it made him the first WVU player to score four different ways in a season — rushing, pass catching, kick and punt returning.
And it wasn’t enough.
Earlier in the week, it was suggested to Holgorsen in his press conference that Austin might fit well at running back on a team that could not run the ball, that he was the all-time leading rusher in the state of Maryland’s prep history.
At the time, Holgorsen was thinking just that thought, and he hedged on his answer.
“I wish we could clone him and put three of him out there,” he said. “We have obviously felt like he is a pretty good inside
receiver, and it has always been the thing on what can we do to get the ball in his hands? And you want to get it into his hands as much as we can. With that said, his trade has been being an inside receiver for four years now. We will continue to try and come up with creative ways to get him the ball, because he is as dynamic as it comes in college football, when it comes to him having the ball in his hands.”
The situation to do it presented itself and it was as if there were three Austins out there.
Should it have been done earlier?
“Obviously,” Holgorsen answered, “he goes for 344, we should have done it four years ago.”
Of course, Holgorsen wasn’t here then, and that decision belonged to Bill Stewart, but then Stewart was rich in running backs, something Holgorsen has not had, especially with injuries to Dustin Garrison and Shawne Alston.
He came into the game with 96 catches and just shy of 1,000 receiving yards, ending the night with 100 catches and more than 1,000. He didn’t have to make a change for the good of a team, especially one going nowhere.
“Tavon’s never been a selfish player, never,” said offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. “That’s one characteristic of him that will help him in years to come. He’s a humble kid, not a boisterous kid, and he wants to do whatever it takes to win the game.”
His running back coach Robert Gillespie put it this way:
“That kid just wants to win. He’s that kind of guy. He doesn’t care what position he lines up at. That’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. He could line up and play DB or linebacker.”
Well, maybe not, but the way he ran in this game it’s possible he could become the first player ever to have 1,000 yards receiving and rushing in the same season, maybe even win both the Doak Walker award given to the best running back and Biletnikoff Award given to the top receiver.
“There’s a bunch of evidence on tape that he does things you can’t coach. He does things you want guys to do,” Gillespie said.
They even had a passing play in for him, but as Dawson would say, “The one thing he doesn’t do very well is pass the ball and I didn’t feel real comfortable calling it.”
Why not? He might have thrown it ... and caught it himself.
In truth, it wasn’t even so much what he did on this night as it was the way he did it.
The man seems capable of running in three directions at once. He’s here; he’s there.
He made a one-touchdown run of just four yards, which may have been history’s best four-yard TD run, juking a linebacker to the outside and cutting inside of him and juking another to the inside and cutting outside him to score in the corner of the end zone.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.