AMES — Star players.
Iowa State defensive coordinator Wally Burnham’s played against them, coached them and game planned for them for more than 50 years.
So what does the former Alabama player under Bear Bryant and national championship assistant coach at Florida State under Bobby Bowden think of West Virginia play-maker Tavon Austin?
“He’s the best football player in this league, by far,” said Burnham, who will try to devise a scheme to limit the explosive line-up-anywhere receiver in Friday’s 2:30 p.m. Big 12 game at Jack Trice Stadium. “You put the ball in that young man’s hand and you’d better hold your britches, let me tell you.”
Cue the trademark chuckle that belies a serious devotion to the art of crafting sneaky-good defenses for the Cyclones (6-5, 3-5).
Burnham, his staff and players will need to be in top form to slow down Austin — who racked up a jaw-dropping 572 all-purpose yards in the Mountaineers’ 50-49 loss last week to Oklahoma.
The performance fell just six yards short of the single-game FBS record in the category and caused heads to shake from Morgantown to Norman.
“I don’t think you can put that in perspective,” West Virginia quarterback and erstwhile Heisman Trophy frontrunner Geno Smith told reporters Monday. “The offensive line got him to the next level and that was all she wrote.”
The Mountaineers (5-5, 2-5) showed a new, extended look with Austin: Lining him up in the backfield, which led to a school-record 344 yards on 21 carries.
“We’ve just got to tackle,” ISU cornerback Jeremy Reeves said. “That’s the main thing: tackle, tackle, tackle. Don’t let him get loose.”
Easier said than done.
Austin scored two touchdowns last Saturday, but couldn’t help his team avoid its fifth straight loss.
But that skid’s not much on him, Smith and Fred Biletnikoff Award finalist Stedman Bailey, who’s also putting up eye-popping numbers (126 yards per game, 36 career touchdown catches) at the receiver position.
West Virginia’s scored 34 or more points in three of those confounding defeats.
“They’re not any less dangerous,” said ISU coach Paul Rhoads, who faced many good Mountaineers teams as Pittsburgh’s defensive coordinator for eight seasons. “I think what happened to them is the Big 12. This is a great, great football league. And they’re a very good football team.”
Austin appears to pose the most peril, along with Bailey.
Both average more than 100 receiving yards per game.
But Austin adds the run game element, which Cyclone defenders have broken down assiduously on film.
“I don’t think OU was prepared (for that),” ISU linebacker A.J. Klein said. “I kind of saw a little bit of the game and saw the interviews. (Sooners coach Bob) Stoops even said that — they were not prepared for that. So now that we saw that, it gives us a little heads up so we can adjust.”
That’s the plan, anyway.
“When he’s in the backfield, you’ve got to decide, ‘I’ve got to stop the run,’” Burnham said. “If they throw the ball with him in the backfield — I’m sure they’ll expand their package, but you’ve got to make that decision and you’ve got to get enough people in there to, hopefully, slow him down. If he’s not in the backfield, then you’ve got to defend him passing-wise. So they use him in both areas. It’s tough. But that’s what we’ve got to do.”
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