While the early season national title talk quickly crashed and burned on the way way to a 5-5 record, there is still one reason to watch the West Virginia Mountaineers: Tavon Austin. At this point, you can’t really put a position on the guy. Is he a deadly kick returner? Is he the best run-after-catch receiver in the nation? Is he currently the country’s scariest running back? The answer may be "yes" on all accounts.
Despite having one of the most horrendous defenses in the land, you have to credit West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen for his willingness to think outside the box. Early in the season, just one week after quarterback Geno Smith threw for 656 yards and eight touchdowns against Baylor, West Virginia came out and shoved the ball down the throats of the Texas Longhorns to the tune of 192 rushing yards and 48 points. After four consecutive defeats, it seems Holgorsen is willing to try anything to create a spark, including putting his most dynamic receiver at running back.
Last weekend, in the Mountaineers' devastating 50-49 loss to the Oklahoma Sooners, Austin turned in one of the season’s memorable performances. Austin was simply unstoppable, finishing the game with 572 all-purpose yards, a school record 344 rushing yards and two touchdowns. As good as it looked on paper, it was even better to the naked eye. Just take a peek:
While Austin’s stats were absolutely ridiculous, the way he consistently made Oklahoma defenders look was even more laughable. There are few things in the world more entertaining than watching former Arizona head coach (and now Oklahoma defensive coordinator) Mike Stoops go completely nuts on the sidelines. "Hey Coach, how about you stop setting your players up for failure and call something other than Cover-2 man?" There are few tasks harder to do as a defender than tackling an opponent in space. It is infinitely harder to do when that ball carrier is the shiftiest player in the nation.
While watching Austin continuously rip off big yardage, there was only one name than that popped into mind: Reggie Bush. As Austin did his best "Bush vs. Fresno State" imitation by cutting back hard across the grain on several huge runs, two question came to mind: 1) If West Virginia had played Austin at running back all season, would he have produced Bush-like numbers? 2) How disgustingly awesome would Reggie Bush have been if he had played in a spread offense rather than Norm Chow’s West Coast Offense?
To the first question, in Bush’s 2005 Heisman Trophy campaign (since vacated), he finished the year with 2,218 yards from scrimmage, 672 total return yards, and 19 touchdowns. With three games still to play (including a likely bowl appearance), Austin already has 1,497 yards from scrimmage, 815 total return yards, and 15 total touchdowns. With just Iowa State, Kansas and a mid-level bowl team left on the docket, Austin may well approach Bush’s overall numbers by season’s end.
As for the second question, Bush would likely have been even more transcendent in a spread offense. In the traditional West Coast Offense Bush played in at USC, creating one-on-one situations in space was much more difficult to achieve than it is in today’s spread. One of the main staples of the spread offense is to consistently create one-on-one situations in space for the ball carrier, then count on your athlete to be superior to the opponent's. No one was a better athlete than Bush. Simply go back and look at Bush’s highlights -- you will see just how impossible it was to tackle him in space:
The similarities between the two highlight clips are astounding. The elusive shake and sudden burst possessed by each of the playmakers is downright unfair. While Austin’s impact at the next level may be minimized (much as Bush’s has been), sit back and enjoy watching him put on a show over his final three collegiate games. This type of excitement doesn’t come along too often.