Harris: WVU needs to unleash Austin
West Virginia's Geno Smith and Tavon Austin are the best quarterback/receiver duo in college football. They are legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates.
Smith carried the offense in the first two games. When the Mountaineers needed to make something happen in their third game against Maryland, coach Dana Holgorsen unleashed Austin on the Terrapins.
Holgorsen rode Austin to a school record-tying 13 receptions for a game-high 179 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-21 victory.
A playmaker with a great sense of timing, Austin delivered in the clutch to offset the Mountaineers' first serious test of the season.
Austin's second touchdown of the game — which featured him lulling Maryland's secondary to sleep before darting to an unprotected area to make the catch — extended WVU's lead to 24-14 less than a minute before halftime.
Austin dropped the hammer on Maryland in the fourth quarter when he sprinted past a linebacker to score the easiest touchdown you'll ever see.
I don't know what Maryland coach Randy Edsall was thinking, but suffice it to say the formation leaving the best receiver in American wide open down the middle of the field should be ripped from the Terrapins' playbook.
“They did a good job mixing up coverages. We knew eventually we were going to catch them in the right coverage. It just so happened that we caught them,” explained WVU offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson.
“That was a mismatch,” Austin said gleefully. “Watching film, they do a lot of man to man. I knew they were going to line up in the slot and put a linebacker on me, and that's what they did.”
To be fair, it didn't matter which defense Maryland directed toward Austin, who's in his final college season. No one has stopped him to this point.
There aren't any limits to what Austin is capable of doing on the football field.
A converted running back, he's comfortable taking a quick snap from Smith and sweeping right or left to daylight. He's a dangerous kick returner who can offer three career touchdown returns as proof. And, of course, WVU's career leader in receptions is the best pass catcher in the college game this side of USC's Marqise Lee.
“Speed definitely kills,” Austin said. “I was blessed with a lot of speed. It gets me in and out of some tough situations.”
Actually, it works both ways.
With 34 catches for 345 yards this season, Austin leads the nation in receptions per game and is 10th in receiving yards. His five TD catches rank second nationally. Career-wise, he needs one more TD catch to overtake Chris Henry as WVU's all-time leader with 22.
“It was probably my best game, besides the Orange Bowl,” Austin said.
In the Orange Bowl last January, Austin caught 12 passes for 123 yards and four touchdowns as the Mountaineers crushed Clemson, 70-33.
He may have fallen one touchdown short of his Orange Bowl performance, but his consistent effort against Maryland was the only thing working on a day that WVU's offense came as close as it has all season to sputtering.
“Some days they're going to buckle down on me and I probably won't have too many catches,” Austin said. “(Saturday) was my day, and my number was called.”
If Holgorsen and the Mountaineers know what's good for them, they'll continue calling Austin's number.
Facing Baylor's pass defense (No. 113 nationally) in the Mountaineers' Big 12 opener at Milan Puskar Stadium, there's no telling what kind of numbers Austin and the passing game will be able to generate.
“Big game,” Austin said. “The lights are on. Time to perform.”
John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.