Coal Bowl: WVU's Austin leaves a lasting impression
MORGANTOWN - Geno Smith played at such a profound level during Saturday's 69-34 victory against Marshall that he earned high praise from both near and afar.
"He managed the game as well as anybody I've ever been around," Coach Dana Holgorsen said after watching his senior quarterback complete 32 of 36 passes for 323 yards and four touchdowns as the 11th-ranked Mountaineers won their ninth consecutive season-opener.
Sunday saw the Walter Camp Foundation name Smith the National Player of the Week after he made things look so simple, but Smith couldn't quite believe one thing he witnessed from teammate Tavon Austin. He wouldn't let a three-play sequence go without acclaim.
"What he did was extremely hard," Smith said. "If you haven't done it, you don't know."
It began late in the second quarter with WVU leading 20-10. The offense took over at its own 17-yard line and the first play was a reverse to Austin.
The play gained 70 yards and only ended when Austin faked back inside to lose cornerback Keith Baxter, but stumbled and let Baxter catch up to the play. He was pushed out of bounds at the Marshall 13.
"I should have tried to keep running," Austin said. "Next time, I give you my word: I'm going to keep running straight."
It was no matter for the Mountaineers. Austin scored two plays later, though it wasn't as simple as that. He never left the field. He picked himself up after he and Baxter went to the ground and he stayed in the game.
He caught the next two passes and scored from 6 yards out on the second.
Fifty-two seconds passed between the end of the long run and the short touchdown. Not 52 game seconds, but 52 actual seconds.
"He was tired," offensive coordinator and receivers coach Shannon Dawson said. "We were putting an emphasis on getting the ball into certain people's hands throughout camp and we stressed the fact that if we make big plays we want our guys to stay on the field.
"We want our best players on the field as much as possible. Obviously, if a guy is gassed, we'll relieve him, but in that situation, we were going to make him stay on the field and keep playing."
The Mountaineers want more of Austin this season after he led the nation with 198 all-purpose yards per game in 2011. They moved him to the team's other inside receiver position because that one is on the field more than the other and because it is targeted most often in the offense.
In his first game there, Austin caught 10 passes for 53 yards. He also carried three times, including the first play of the game, and fielded three punts and one kickoff.
At the end of the day, he had 173 yards and a touchdown and was on the field a lot more than he would have been last season, including those two plays after the reverse.
Austin said he would have asked out of the game last year, but that he never considered it against Marshall.
"I knew it was only going to be a couple more seconds, so if that meant I had to push through it, I had to push through it," he said. "It was hard, but you've got to know something big is about to happen.
"I'd already made a big play and I knew there was a chance I could still get into the end zone, and if it wasn't going to be me, I was going to help somebody else get in."
Austin said he was helped by knowing the plan. The offense discussed a few plays before the start of the drive and Austin knew he was the ball carrier or the top receiving option on all of them. The first pass after the run was a hitch route, a short pass that Austin caught and tried to run with into the end zone.
He encountered three defenders and Evan McKelvey, Marshall's 6-foot-1, 200-pound linebacker, made the stop.
The 5-9, 180-pound Austin got up and scooted to the next play. That was a quick screen, where he slipped through defenders and crossed the goal line.
"A year ago, Tavon would have ran off the field, but we're forcing him to not do that," said Holgorsen, who constantly tells Austin tales about former Texas Tech receiver Wes Welker and how he never came out of the game. "He was tired, but we were going tempo and we didn't want to sub anybody.
"He's got to develop that mental toughness to stay out there. All of them do. A receiver running 70 yards is pretty taxing, but if we can line up and snap it again pretty quickly, that's to our advantage, not the defense's advantage."
Smith witnessed all of Austin's exploits the previous three years to the tune of 4,376 all-purpose yards and 23 total touchdowns. He even lived a little like Austin with a 28-yard touchdown run on a broken play that entertained and amused much of the 59,120 at Mountaineer Field, but that only fostered his fondness of Austin's effort.
"I was tired on the sideline after mine," Smith said. "I didn't want to show it, but I was really tired. Tavon's a tough kid. To do what he did was not as easy as it looked."
Holgorsen and Dawson have been on Austin since spring practice to play faster and Dawson said there were a few "critical" plays Saturday where Austin was too slow, including one that would have been a touchdown had Austin run the route hard and encouraged Smith to throw. Yet Austin's day was a step in the desired direction and Smith said he never hesitated to throw to Austin after the run.
"The good thing about our practice is the tempo," Smith said.
"We work on things like that. We work on running a play and getting to the next play or getting a big play and going tempo so the defense never knows what's coming."