By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
In newspaper vernacular, this figures to be a sidebar to Saturday’s Maryland-West Virginia University football game, but there’s something deep down inside that screams out that it may wind up being the featured story.
On the surface, the game itself should be all anyone would want, West Virginia facing a BCS conference opponent for the first time, a regional rival, at that. The Mountaineers will be trying to keep their unbeaten record intact and keep quarterback Geno Smith on the high road to the Heisman Trophy while the Terrapins are offering up a nationally ranked, experienced defense unlike anything this offense that is averaging 60.3 points a game over its last three has seen.
But this sidebar, this game within the game, this battle between the Mountaineers’ flashy senior wide receiver/kick returner Tavon Austin and Maryland wunderkind Stefon Diggs, has potential to turn it into an electric afternoon.
While Diggs has something of a size advantage over Austin, standing 6-1 to Austin’s 5-9, and weighing 185 to Austin’s reported 171, this has nothing to do with size, for Austin stands taller than Manute Bol himself when he has the football in his hand and space in front of him.
There came a moment on Tuesday when WVU coach Dana Holgorsen was asked if, indeed, Diggs and Austin were similar.
Not being one to openly offer praise of an opponent at the expense of one of his own who could yet emerge as a Heisman Trophy or Biletnikoff Award candidate, Holgorsen’s answer was reserved.
“On tape, he has some twitch, but there are a whole lot of kids that have twitch,” he said of Diggs. “He’s a Baltimore kid that wears No. 1 that’s a receiver and return guy — I guess they’re clones. I don’t know the kid, but he’s a good player.”
Those similarities add to the intrigue ... each a receiver, each a returner, each wearing a No. 1 jersey and each a guy with “twitch,” which is Holgorsen’s way of describing a runner who is like some of those old cartoon characters who would be behind one tree, then another, then yet another without ever being seen to move.
They are here; they are there; they are everywhere ... except in the arms of the tackler.
Austin, of course, is a proven commodity, ranking second in the nation in receiving to teammate Stedman Bailey while also ranking second in all-purpose yardage in the country.
Diggs is just a newcomer on the scene, but already is making his mark, a week ago turning a tipped pass into a miracle reception of which coach Randy Edsall would say: “How many guys are going to realize, it’s one-on-one coverage, the ball’s thrown not to me but next to me, so all I’m going to do is play to the whistle and run to the ball because it might be tipped? There’s a lot guys who wouldn’t have that instinct who have been playing for a long time. That’s something you might not even see in the NFL.”
Of such plays legends are born, for they are the kind of plays that Austin has been making since he spurned an offer from Maryland to come to WVU, currently possessing 195 catches for 2,290 yards and nine TDs at WVU while rushing 42 times for 470 yards, an average of 11.2 yards per carry, and being one of the nation’s most feared return men.
Diggs’ abilities are similar, having caught nine passes for 146 yards, but, more importantly, averaging 13.8 yards on 11 punt returns and 24.6 yards on five kickoffs. That is really the area in which Holgorsen is concentrating, for he knows games often turn on big plays on special teams.
Diggs, he knows, will not be the only challenge on returns as the season rolls on.
“They are the same scheme that we’re going to have to figure out when we play everybody else on our schedule,” he said. ”Everybody else on our schedule is going to have a quick twitch return guy that can make plays and is problematic because of talent and all the rest. We faced a guy that was just like it in the bowl game last year. They’re called good players, and there are more than just Tavon Austin and Stefon Diggs across the country, I can assure you that.
“We don’t care who they are; we figure out what their schemes are and what we have to do to contain guys like that. It’s about our coverage units, and we spend a lot of time on kickoff coverage. We spend a lot of time on punt coverage, and we have to get people down the field and make tackles.”
While this game might to Diggs come down to a personal battle, Austin swears that it won’t. Being a senior, he knows what it means in the overall scheme of things that WVU can accomplish and knows that more rides on this than just a head-to-head showdown of twitch, so to speak.
“I’ve heard of him, but I don’t know what high school he went to or anything. I have seen him and he definitely is a player,” Austin said when asked what he knows of Diggs.
But Diggs versus Austin? No way.
“I’m just going to go out and play my game,” Austin said.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.