WVU football: Offense is a mystery by design
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Two games ago, West Virginia spotted a vulnerability in Oklahoma's defense and exploited it by unleashing Tavon Austin as a running back, a clever plot twist that worked for 344 yards rushing by the receiver who leads the nation in catches per game.
The Mountaineers remained mysterious Friday and dangled Austin out there for Iowa State's defense, but sent the Cyclones spinning with a heavy dose of running back Shawne Alston. It succeeded again as Alston carried a season-high 19 times for a career-high 130 yards in the 31-24 win.
Alston had barely played since the second game of the season.
"His week leading up to the game was a lot better than it's been," second-year WVU Coach Dana Holgorsen said of Alston. "Obviously, I didn't want to put that out there in the media and do anything that would give them something to prepare for."
It spooked Iowa State, which prepared for Austin and had to contend with both.
"Toward the end of the game when Tavon broke a long run around the left side, they were going with me to the right," Alston said. "Tavon was already gone."
With bowl eligibility clinched and a five-game losing streak snapped, the question now is what covert act the Mountaineers (6-5, 3-5 Big 12) will spring Saturday against Kansas (1-10, 0-9). It might be something opponents haven't seen since September.
Often during Friday's game, the Mountaineers had an offense on the field that hadn't been together and healthy since the first quarter of the second game of the season. Back then, the Mountaineers were clearly in possession of one of the most dangerous offenses in the nation.
"With everyone healthy," Austin said, "I believe we can compete with the No. 1 team in the country."
Alston suffered his left thigh bruise against James Madison, played a few snaps the next game and missed the four consecutive games after that. He played little against TCU and Oklahoma State and then sat out again against Oklahoma.
When Alston was back against TCU, receiver Stedman Bailey was out of the starting lineup with a sprained ankle. He has caught 34 passes for 512 yards and six touchdowns the past three games. After scoring 14 points in back-to-back losses to Texas Tech and Kansas State, WVU has 38, 34, 49 and 31 since.
It's not near the 52 points the Mountaineers averaged in the 5-0 start, but it is better than it had been a month ago.
"I believe we have one of the best offenses in the country," quarterback Geno Smith said. "I'm not saying that in a cocky or disrespectful manner, but I think we have the most explosive player in Tavon Austin and one of the most explosive receivers in Stedman Bailey.
"It's hard to say that with a 5-5 record or a 6-5 record, but I still believe we can do something special the last two games."
Alston and Bailey's healthy return to the starting lineup coincides with Austin's surge as dual threat who Friday had 75 yards rushing and 99 yards receiving.
"More than anything, we're going to continue to come up with creative ways to get him the ball," Holgorsen said. "We got him the ball 20 times and a lot of it was in space and looked pretty good. We've got to keep giving it to him as many times as we can, but we can't line him up in the backfield and run him in there. Shawne can do that. He's a power back. Having them both back there is best."
That's the wrinkle Kansas must worry about most because it wasn't on film before Friday. Iowa State had problems figuring out what to do when Smith had Alston and Austin on either side of him in the backfield.
"It was definitely fun to see the defense kind of confused," Austin said. "They didn't know where we were lined up at. Sometimes Shawne would come in and they'd overset their defense on his side instead of playing a regular defense. We messed up their heads a little bit."
The defense was focused on Austin and making sure he didn't get into space on the perimeter. Alston's first carry was good for 10 yards through the middle. His next three carries went for 13, 7 and 15 yards.
"Tavon was sort of like a distraction," Alston said.
Alston was better suited for Iowa State's defense, which was going to play more compact than the Oklahoma defense. The Sooners created space and Austin was fast enough to speed through seams and then make people miss. The Cyclones congested those spaces and Alston was brutish enough to barrel through for yards.
"Having him back there makes us better," Holgorsen said.
Alston had 123 yards in the opener against Marshall, but just 88 in all the games after that. He had that by the first drive of the third quarter.
"I was getting better every week, but I was still constantly meeting with the training staff and the weight staff figuring out what we had to do that week and figuring out where the strength was at," Alston said. "Finally last Sunday, they told me everything was OK and it was strong enough to take the brace off and I didn't need it any more. That was a great relief."
Uninhibited by the brace, Alston ran hard, shed tackles and slowly tilted the attention Iowa State was giving Austin. After falling behind 24-23 in the fourth quarter, WVU thought it had the Iowa State defense set up for the touch pass from Smith to a motioning Austin.
It went for a 75-yard touchdown as Austin beat the defense to the outside and ran up the sideline away from everyone.
"It's amazing, really, to see a guy undersized and really underrated be the most dynamic player in college football with the ball in his hands," Smith said. "You see him constantly, week in and week out, give us the spark we need."