As I was reading through the standard collection of articles and postmortems after the Oklahoma game, I was continually astounded every time I reviewed and attempted to take in Tavon Austin's numbers. They were astounding. I quickly found myself thinking back to big plays and performances from his previous three years and came to a surprising realization.
Tavon may be the WVU G.O.A.T.
For those of you not familiar with this vernacular for awesomeness, it means Greatest Of All Time, and if you take a look at his consistency, versatility, top-level performance and the ability to answer big moments, Tavon very well may be the best we've ever seen in the Mountain State. Or at least a close second to Mr. White.
Doesn't get more consistent than #1. He's logged a receiving and kick return touchdown every season he's been in Morgantown and since his emergence as a key component of the offense as a sophomore has never gone more than 3 games without scoring. From his first touchdown catch against East Carolina in 2009, Tavon has been an important part of the offense, ascending to primacy in only his sophomore year when he led all receivers with 8 scores.
As a junior and senior he's done nothing more than re-write the WVU receiving record book with teammate Stedman Bailey. He owns 2 of the top 4 high yardage seasons (Bailey has the others) and against Baylor this year had the third best day by a WVU WR ever with 14 catches for 215 yards (Bailey has the top 2 yardage days). Additionally he'll leave WVU as the all-time leading receptions and receiving yardage king and in second place for receiving TDs (guess who's number 1).
Aside from his offensive prowess, Austin has been a consistent threat to score on kickoff and punt returns. He electrified an emotional crowd with an opening-kick TD against UConn his freshman year and would take 3 more kicks to the house over his career to tie for the kick return TD lead among Mountaineers.
And if I may be so bold as to point something out without bringing down a jinx upon Mr. Austin, (seriously, go find Jobu and give him some rum) Tavon has never been hurt for any meaningful stretch. I can't even remember him missing a start. For a guy who touches the ball as much as he does, that's impressive in and of itself.
The kid is simply outstanding at every single thing he does. After a prolific high school career as a running back Austin stepped into a logjam at that position in Morgantown and was converted to receiver, a move that clearly worked out as evidenced by the records we discussed. He's on anybody's short list of great WVU receivers. Those records aside, he's always been an extremely dangerous kick/punt returner who can score any time he touches the ball. He will end his WVU career with the record for kick return yardage (career and single season), a tie for the lead in kick return TDs (4, shared with Shawn Terry) as well as the leader in all-purpose yardage (career as well as top two single-season marks). There was just one little gap in the resume....
On November 16th against the Oklahoma Sooners, Tavon made his first start since high school at his native running back and proceeded to put on a show for the ages, racking up a school record 344 yards (on a paltry 21 carries) en route to the most dominant night I can remember someone ever having from the running back position. He was untouchable, making All-American defenders look foolish as he surpassed the record yardage gained by a runner against the Sooners by well over 100 yards.
The backfield explosion was only half the story. Austin went for a combined 572 all-purpose yards against the 12th ranked Sooners (just 6 shy of the NCAA record which was set against an awful New Mexico State team) and did enough that when he stood deep waiting on Oklahoma's final kickoff following their game-winning touchdown with a little over a minute left, WVU fans chanted "Tavon, Tavon" in expectation of one more dominant feat.
It was a night unlike any seen my Mountaineer Field as Tavon blew past Garrett Ford's WVU single game all-purpose yardage mark of 356 (set against Pitt in 1965) by over 200 yards. Just think, if it weren't for Stedman Bailey, Tavon would own the single-game WVU records for both rushing yards in a game and receiving yards in a game (his 215 vs Baylor has been bested by Bailey twice this season). It's staggering to consider, and it's a display of versatility that college football hasn't seen since Reggie Bush.
This is one of those tricky to define but you-know-it-when-you-see-it qualities that makes Tavon so great. So many career record holders achieve their lofty statistics through an admirable consistency that results in numbers piled on numbers that finally achieve some level of "greatness" through their sheer weight. Think Ron Dayne in college or Emmit Smith and Marvin Harrison in the pros. These guys are impressive, but you never walk away completely overwhelmed by their talents or abilities after an amazing moment that you'll tell your kids' kids about.
Not so with Tavon. When he is at his best in the open field, he does things humans shouldn't be able to do. He moved forward while moving sideways. He stops and the ratchets back up to full speed like a rubber ball rifled at a wall. He shoots through gaps that don't seem to exist. His otherworldly talent in its finest moments surpasses that of just about anyone I can remember watching at WVU - and that includes guys like Steve Slaton, Amos Zeroeue, Reggie Rembert, Chris Henry and even (gulp) Major Harris. Tavon's best is better than anyone else's best and he's shown it time and time again. That's a rare thing to see and the mark of true greatness.
Notice there was one name I didn't include on that list. Among 2 and a half decades of Mountaineers I can name by heart, Pat White alone can be listed aside Austin in any accounting of open-field runners. He had the speed and almost all the quickness and burst that Tavon demonstrates. And if you put a gun to my head.....I swear I'd give the edge to Tavon. About as high a praise as I can hand out.
Meeting the Moment
Finally, the thing that sets Tavon apart the most to me....his ability to meet the moment. I did a little study of this season and found an interesting thing. Of Tavon's 12 combined receiving and return touchdowns after the James Madison game, none have come when WVU was leading my more than 10 (against Maryland) and in Big 12 play only once has he scored when WVU had a lead (by 7 against Baylor). That means he's not piling up big numbers in blowouts, but instead putting points on the board when they are desperately needed.
Think back on this year: the 4th down catch and run against Texas, the single spark of hope kick return against Kansas State, the punt return to break open a tie game against TCU and finally doing it TWICE against Iowa State last week; taking a punt to the house to give the lead and when it was called back on a penalty scoring AGAIN from long distance on a 75 yard tip pass and long run. - and then adding the 2 point conversion to stretch the lead to 7.
We didn't even mention the Oklahoma game, where he single-handedly brought the Mountaineers back from a 14 point deficit or all the plays he made before this year; a kick return TD in South Florida when offense was nonexistent, the aforementioned return against the visiting yet keyed up UConn Huskies, four Orange Bowl touchdowns.
Tavon chooses his moments and he chooses them well. It's a notable thing to be great at all, it's a historic thing to be great when circumstance demands it.
To wrap things up, Kanye West put it best in his song "Big Brother" that "people never get the flowers while they can still smell 'em." Fortunately for you and I we get a couple final chances to watch #1 in action. Enjoy it. Savor it. Remember it. Tavon Austin is a special young man who will go on to display his skills at the very highest level and it's been a blessing to watch him grow into as dominant a scoring force as exists in college football. We may not see his like again, so soak it all in.
Thanks, Tavon and Happy Senior Day. It's been a privilege.