WVU notebook: Another eye-popping performance by Austin
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - It's a shame that West Virginia is finding out so late what a versatile player Tavon Austin can be.
It's not that the Mountaineers didn't know it all along, of course. They used Austin in a lot of ways. That's why he'll leave after four years as one of the top all-purpose yardage producers in NCAA history.
But his play out of the backfield the past two weeks has been eye popping.
Last week's 344-yard rushing performance against Oklahoma could almost be regarded as a fluke. Oklahoma's defense was designed to give up plays in the run game in order to guard against over-the-top passes, and the Mountaineers took advantage.
But Saturday Iowa State not only played a conventional front with a seven-man box, the Cyclones at times devoted a spy to Austin. And it still didn't work.
Austin rushed for 74 yards, caught passes for 99 more, scored the game-winning touchdown and a 2-point conversion against a defense that knew where he was going to line up. He was the difference in West Virginia's 31-24 win that snapped a five-game losing streak.
His presence also helped big back Shawne Alston rush 19 times for 130 yards.
"You can't just put him in the backfield and run him up in there,'' coach Dana Holgorsen said of the 5-foot-9, 174-pound Austin. "Shawne you can do that with, but not Tavon.''
So the Mountaineers didn't. They handed him the ball 14 times, but also threw it to him six times. He lined up in the backfield and in the slot and got the ball on handoffs and jet sweep tip passes. Three of his receptions were on those plays, including the 75-yarder that won the game.
"The game plan was to give me a couple of carries [out of the backfield] and see what happened, what [the defense] did,'' Austin said.
Well, the bottom line was that the defense once again didn't stop Austin.
"He did what he's done all year,'' Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said. "He's a great football player and if you ask some of the best players and coaches in the [Big 12] they'll tell you the same thing. He's special and they're very fortunate to have him on their roster.''
West Virginia can look back at its failures during a five-game losing streak and point fingers at a lot of causes. There were defensive lapses - meltdowns, even - in every game, offensive inefficiency at times and specials-teams blunders.
At very few points in that streak, though, can one point to penalties as a decisive factor. But had the Mountaineers lost this game, they would have been a huge element.
"We've been good with penalties all year,'' Holgorsen said. "I guess that's what I get for saying that on my radio show this week.''
Against Iowa State, West Virginia had 11 penalties for 107 yards. In the first 10 games, the Mountaineers averaged 4.7 penalties for 41.2 yards, both ranking among the top 25 in the NCAA. Four of ISU's 24 first downs came because of flags.
The penalties were at times mystifying and at other times ridiculous.
Freshman K.J. Dillon was called for an obvious hold in the middle of the field on a punt that Austin returned for a touchdown. Austin didn't need a block, much less a hold.
Josh Francis made a huge stop on ISU quarterback Sam Richardson on a third-and-8 play in the fourth quarter, but then overdid it after the play and was called for grabbing Richardson's facemask. That kept alive the drive that would have tied the game but for the fumble by Jeff Woody on the goal line.
On that same drive, one play before the fumble, Will Clarke gave the Cyclones a first-and-goal at the 7 thanks to a clear hands-to-the-face penalty on a third-and-10 incomplete pass.
And left tackle Quinton Spain just had an awful game, whistled for back-to-back procedure penalties on the first drive of the game and a hold later. Jeff Braun also had a holding penalty that eventually forced WVU to settle for a field goal and Curtis Feigt had one that ruined any chance the Mountaineers had to perhaps extend a 17-7 lead to 20-7 or 24-7 just before half. When WVU was forced to punt, Iowa State took advantage and scored to get within 17-14.
BRIEFLY: Austin broke his own school record for receptions in a season Saturday. He now has 106 this year, five more than the mark he established as a junior. He has two more games to play now that the team is bowl eligible. ... Not to be outdone, Stedman Bailey broke the record he set for receiving yards last year. He now has 1,342 after gaining 1,279 last year. ... When West Virginia went up 3-0 and 10-0, it was the first time the Mountaineers had scored first since their last win, Oct. 6 at Texas. ... Austin had 261 all-purpose yards and he's a yard short of the single-season school record of 2,573 he set last season.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.