Austin has Iowa State chasing ghosts
MORGANTOWN - There is a certain simplistic and elementary philosophy to a West Virginia offense that at times seems capable of doing almost anything well.
For all of the seemingly complicated and varied formations, the strict attention to detail and the emphasis on tempo, what the Mountaineers really do is throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks.
"Everything we do is kind of trial and error,'' Dana Holgorsen admits. "If it looks good, we keep doing it. If it doesn't, we do something else.''
Last weekend, what West Virginia threw against that wall was lining up Tavon Austin in the backfield and handing him the football. To say that it stuck would be an understatement. He rushed for a school-record 344 yards, a performance that nearly allowed the Mountaineers to upset Oklahoma.
To think that Holgorsen and his staff won't try it again on Friday when West Virginia (5-5, 2-5 Big 12) tries once again to snap a five-game losing streak and become bowl eligible in a game at Iowa State (6-5, 3-5) is ludicrous.
But to assume it will work as well - or at all, for that matter - is probably wishful thinking. West Virginia will throw it against the wall again, but this time it might not stick.
"It's just the way [Oklahoma] played,'' offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said of Austin's wildly successful night. "I don't know that you'll see that again from anyone else.''
If nothing else, Austin's performance against Oklahoma will force opponents, beginning with Iowa State this week, to game plan for it. And that takes time away from preparing for other things. Coaches refer to it as chasing ghosts, which means being forced to prepare for a bunch of things that teams might do, rather than what they normally do.
"It's a pain in the rear end, especially with a six-day work week,'' Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said. "It's hard enough to prepare for the offenses you face in this league [in a full week]. And then they start doing things different and you've got the unknown.
"You don't want to chase ghosts, but to a certain extent you have to, especially when a player is as talented as he is. You don't do that against the University of Oklahoma and their personnel. You just don't do that. He's a very, very special player and now you've got to spend the time to make sure you're ready for it, you're aligned for it and give your kids at least a chance to try and tackle him.''
If the Austin-in-the-backfield element was the primary thing that an opposing defense had to worry about and prepare for, it would be manageable. But it's not.
With Austin forcing Oklahoma's safeties to pay more attention to the run, Geno Smith and Stedman Bailey also had another huge game. Bailey caught 13 of Smith's passes for 205 yards and four touchdowns and on several occasions managed to do something that had become increasingly rare of late - get behind a defense that had to play the run.
Iowa State won't play the same defensive alignment as Oklahoma, of course. In fact, the Cyclones are adamant about stopping the run against every team they face, whereas Oklahoma pretty much concedes it in order to prevent big plays in the passing game. That means Austin won't be taking handoffs and immediately finding open space against a five-man box, which is what led to his huge rushing day.
Austin can, however, have some success running the ball if West Virginia's offense can make some plays elsewhere. He touched the ball on about 30 percent of the offensive plays last week, which is considerable. But that also means that on 70 percent, he did not. The Mountaineers have to make things happen on those plays.
"He got the ball 25 times [21 rushes and four receptions] out of about 90 plays [actually 82],'' Dawson said. "That's a good amount and probably as much as he should be getting it. But those other guys have to make plays, too.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1