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WVU football: Austin shines on gloomy day

MORGANTOWN -- Back in August, West Virginia was quietly and covertly excited about something it had done with Tavon Austin to help the offense.

He was moved from one of the team's inside receiver positions to the other, which not only put him in the most significant role in Coach Dana Holgorsen's offense, but made him the closest receiver to the quarterback each time the Mountaineers used more than two receivers.

It meant he would be Geno Smith's first read on most pass plays and an easy target on short throws with Austin sweeping swiftly across the field. It meant more chances for reverse runs and easy pitch-and-catch plays on quick screens.

WVU had a vision and was making it a reality.

"It's about using him every way we possibly can," receiver Stedman Bailey said at the time. "We can even line him up in the backfield now."

More than three months later, and after stating they would not, the Mountaineers have finally done the latter with results that might be as fantastic as they are frustrating.

Austin entered Saturday's 50-49 loss to Oklahoma (No. 14 in the latest AP Top 25 poll) leading the nation with 10.67 receptions per game. He had just 103 yards rushing all season, with 70 coming on one run in the season-opening win over Marshall. Austin was the feature running back against the Sooners and carried a career-high 21 times for a school-record 344 yards.

"Obviously," Holgorsen said, "we should have done that prior to this."

It was within the offense's capability. True, it wasn't a necessity when Shawne Alston was healthy early in the season and when Andrew Buie was slashing through the Texas defense for 207 yards or when the Mountaineers were hoping Dustin Garrison would rediscover his 2011 form.

Yet the running game slowly deteriorated in this five-game losing streak and the first four games of that skid produced just 30 more yards than Austin himself supplied against the Sooners.

"One of the all-time best," Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops said of the performance. "I don't know if I've seen one quite like it."

Part of the success was the surprise factor and that Stoops had never seen Austin play in that capacity. Stoops said the Sooners weren't expecting Austin at running back and they never found a way to adjust.

His side still won and the Mountaineers (5-5, 2-5 Big 12) now have their worst losing streak since 1986, though the wonder is if it would be this way if, as Holgorsen said, they featured Austin sooner.

Part of the offensive struggle during the slide is tied to the lack of a running game. Again and again players and coaches bemoaned the void and how it affected the passing game. Opponents were content to drop defenders to guard Smith's throws and cover the routes his receivers would run. Neither Buie nor Garrison, or even Alston when he made a brief return, would discourage that.

WVU used Austin for a few plays in the backfield against Oklahoma State, but the results weren't so great that they could predict what happened Saturday. The coaches didn't require any convincing, though. They already knew and Austin said Saturday that Holgorsen had joked recently how Austin "should have been pushing more" to play running back before.

"We don't need evidence to know Tavon Austin makes plays," running backs coach Robert Gillespie said. "Practice didn't allow us to know that."

Tired of waiting on the running game and confident Austin could hit open spaces against Oklahoma's defense, and then convince the safeties to close those open spaces and creep forward, the Mountaineers leaned on Austin from the start.

The Sooners (8-2, 6-1) were spinning and called a timeout after just four plays. By the end of the game, Austin had the highest single-game average in the country this season (16.4 yards per carry) and five of the team's six longest rushes this season - and his 70-yard dash against the Marshall is the second longest, meaning he has the six best runs.

Not at all coincidentally, Smith passed for 320 yards and four scores against a pass defense that was No. 2 in pass efficiency and No. 8 in passing yards allowed per game and had only given up three passing touchdowns in nine games. Smith had 41-, 35-, and 40-yard completions against Oklahoma, which had locked safety Tony Jefferson on Austin and made its safeties move closer to the line.

"The trend it seems since maybe the Baylor game was playing two (defenders) deep and taking the safeties out of the equation and the linebackers out of the equation and forcing us to run the ball," Smith said. "When the safeties and linebackers and whoever have to play the run, they can't keep up with the passing game. We were able to get behind them a couple times."

It was remarkably simple, too, as Austin ran variations of one play that only looked different because of the formations that disguised them.

"Two plays," he said. "To the left and to the right."

It wasn't difficult to prepare Austin for one play and he didn't need more than a few carries to feel like he did when he was back at Baltimore's Dunbar High School. Austin had arguably the best prep career in Maryland history as a running back with state records of 7,962 yards and 123 touchdowns. He had 2,660 yards and 34 touchdowns on 218 carries as a senior.

"Next game I will be back there, and performing like I did (Saturday), they'll probably have a couple more things in there waiting for me," he said.

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.


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