By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
He wore No. 9 then, did Tavon Austin, not yet having graduated to the No. 1 uniform he wears at West Virginia University.
In those days he was playing for the Dunbar Poets in Baltimore and, as the songwriters surely will come to say, he was as much poetry in motion then as he is now.
It was the morning after Tavon Austin shocked the nation with one of the greatest performances any collegiate football player had put on anywhere, and he did it just as he had done it then, out of the running back position.
Just 12 hours or so earlier you had watched him shakin’ and bakin’ for 344 rushing yards and 572 all-purpose yards against one of the nation’s most legendary programs, Oklahoma. This was no Bowling Green, no East Carolina.
This was the nation’s 12th-ranked team, and he made them look like some of those kids back in high school who spent so many frustrating afternoons and evenings trying to so much as lay a hand on Austin, let alone tackle him.
That was what had to be seen, so you went to YouTube.com and looked up Tavon Austin’s high school highlights. It wasn’t exactly one of those “Eureka!” moments. There had been 689,990 views before it was clicked on this time.
There was this kid wearing No. 9, celebrating touchdown after touchdown with a dance and a head bump, performing the same magic he had performed the night earlier.
Then, as now, there were times he would slow down, look for his block, set it up with a move, then take off into open space. His change of pace as he ran was the best you’d seen at any level, a defender thinking he had him measured only to have Austin put on the afterburner and be two steps farther along than the mumbling would-be tackler thought he would be.
Even in those days he had visions of being in the NFL, not as the slot receiver the Mountaineers would convert him to in college, but at the running back spot out of which he ran for the first time in four years on Saturday night.
True, as a slot receiver and kick returner he had been special, even after playing one game at running back still leading the nation in receptions per game at 10.0, but what if he had been a running back? Who knows what the legend of Tavon Austin would be.
Does he sometimes dream that dream himself? If he could do it over, would he go to receiver or would he rather play running back?
“No, I think I would still play slot. Just for my reasoning only, for my dream to play in the NFL,” he said when asked in the quiet aftermath of a 50-49 loss to the Sooners. “I don’t think I would last in the NFL as a running back. If I do get that chance, then I’d like to go in the backfield a couple of times. But I wouldn’t change anything; I’d stay a slot receiver.”
The thinking of putting him in the slot by Bill Stewart and Jeff Mullen was that he wasn’t big and strong enough to take the pounding you get at running back. What’s more, out of the slot, you get the ball in the open field, where he is best.
But is he really best there, for it seems his greatest skill is getting behind a blocker, waiting patiently for room, making a move to take a defender out of position or simply to get him to shift his weight from one side to the other.
“Being in the backfield, I felt like I was back at Dunbar,” he would admit. “But I have to give credit to the coaching staff, the offensive line, Geno (Smith) making the right checks. I was able to make a couple of people miss in open space.”
You can’t imagine what this game was like for Austin, especially considering what preceded it.
Think back a week when he was wearing the goat horns, the kick returner who was waving everyone away from the football on a punt that had bounced while staying there himself, the ball bouncing into him and turning over to Oklahoma State.
It was a bad mental error, not at all in character for Austin, but you cannot change history.
You can, however, write it, and coach Dana Holgorsen did just that as he surprised Oklahoma by giving them the look of Austin at running back.
He didn’t stun them at first. There was no gain on his first carry and by halftime he had “only” 80 yards on 11 carries ... a strong effort but nothing that hinted what would come in the second half.
In 10 second-half carries, Austin gained 263 yards. He gained 158 of those yards in the third quarter alone.
In that second half he had a 74-yard TD and runs of 56, 54, 47 and 16 yards to go with a 31-yard carry in the first half.
If the West Virginia defense could only have “held” Oklahoma to 48 points, it would have produced one of the great victories in school history. Instead, it was nothing but one of the great performances.
“I don’t worry about (records) during the game,” he said. “I may worry about it after the game.
“They told me I had like 400 yards or something like that, but at the end of the day we still got a loss. It’s a good thing for me, but I’m still worrying about the loss.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.