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Austin at RB gives offense a new wrinkle

MORGANTOWN - Sometimes all this coaching mumbo jumbo is just that.

They design intricate formations, employ dizzying motion and speak with confusing terminology. Much of it is designed to deceive opponents and, or so it seems, fans alike.

And then along comes something fresh and new and revelatory, something that perhaps never before occurred to coaches making hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars, despite its incredible simplicity.

Like maybe putting Tavon Austin in the backfield and handing him the football. Don't overthink it or overscheme it. Just do it.

"I only had two plays,'' Austin said after one of the most productive individual performances in NCAA history. "Run to the left and to the right.''

In the end, it didn't matter as far as Saturday night's result was concerned. Austin and West Virginia still lost to Oklahoma, 50-49, on a Landry Jones-to-Kenny Stills 5-yard touchdown pass with 24 seconds to play. That was the second time the Sooners had erased a WVU lead in the closing four-plus minutes after the Mountaineers had battled back from game-long deficits to take the two late leads.

Still, what Austin did was historic and it was revealing. On the latter of those two points, it was revealing in that turning Austin loose as a running back signals to remaining opponents Iowa State and Kansas that they had better prepare long and hard for the new wrinkle. And yet another dimension can only be a good thing.

"I would think probably so,'' offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson replied late Saturday night when asked if Austin's move into the backfield would be repeated. "We'll game plan [for Iowa State on Sunday] and I'm sure we'll find ways to get him the ball. It'd be pretty stupid if we didn't.''

Indeed, against a defense other than Oklahoma's run-inviting 4-1 front, lining Austin up and expecting similar results is probably unrealistic. But after Saturday night's performance, some variation of it certainly has to be tried.

Not having lined up in the backfield regularly since his days at Baltimore Dunbar, Austin did so right from the start against Oklahoma. By game's end his numbers were utterly staggering, as was his performance itself:

  • Austin carried the ball 21 times for 344 yards in his first-ever appearance as a running back. That broke K.J. Harris' school record of 337 set against East Carolina in 2004.
  • He added four catches for 82 yards, all of them in the first half.
  • He returned eight kickoffs for 146 yards.
  • Add it all up and it comes to 572 all-purpose yards. It goes without saying that it shattered both the school and Big 12 records. As it turns out it was just six yards away from the NCAA mark of 578, set by Emmett White of Utah against New Mexico State in 2000.
  • And afterward it left Dana Holgorsen naturally wishing he'd done it before.

    "It probably should have been done four years ago,'' said Holgorsen, who was nowhere near WVU when Austin arrived on campus in 2009. "In hindsight we obviously should have done it prior to this.''

    Well, perhaps, but that's not necessarily true. No one can argue with Austin's success as a first-time tailback, but he hasn't been bad as a slot receiver, either. He remains the nation's leader in receptions per game and just went over the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the second straight season.

    But the most compelling argument against putting Austin in the backfield more prior to this has had little to do with his potential production. Both his listed height of 5-foot-9 and his listed weight of 171 pounds seem an exaggeration at times, and those body types don't react well to 20-25 tackles per game from linemen and linebackers. As a receiver and kick returner, when he's stopped it is often by smaller defenders or he has the chance to run out of bounds and not be tackled at all.

    And, too, there's Austin's future, which is not as an NFL running back.

    "No, I think I would still play slot,'' Austin said when asked if he'd prefer a return to his high school position as a tailback. "Just for my reasoning only, for my dream to play in the NFL, 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 times. But I wouldn't change anything; I'd stay a slot receiver.''

    In West Virginia's closing games against Iowa State and Kansas, expect a mix. Again, Oklahoma's defense invited a back of Austin's ability, putting him in space almost immediately against a short-handed box. That won't be the case again, especially not in Friday's 3:30 p.m. game against defensive-minded Iowa State.

    But it would also be foolish not to present the Cyclones with that threat and see what happens. If nothing else it will attract defensive attention that would otherwise be reserved for West Virginia's passing game.

    BRIEFLY: Austin has scored four different ways now this season (receiving, rushing, punt return and kickoff return) and there's actually a trick play in the book where he passes the ball. It's never been used, though, and might not be used.

    "I hate to say this about Tavon,'' Dawson said, "but he doesn't throw the ball very well at all.''

  • The school record for all-purpose yards in a game was 365 by Garrett Ford against Pitt in 1965. The Big 12 record was 375 by Hodges Mitchell of Texas against Kansas in 2000.
  • Geno Smith broke the school single-season TD pass record he shared with Marc Bulger (31) with the first of his four touchdown passes, all to Stedman Bailey. He now has 35.
  • West Virginia gained 778 yards of total offense in Saturday's loss. That's just 13 yards away from the NCAA record for total yards by a losing team (791 by Nevada against San Jose State in 2001). It was also the first time in school history that WVU lost when scoring 40 or more points.
  • Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1.


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