The St. Louis Rams rookie wide receiver-returner watched Saturday as a second quarter punt bounced inside the 10-yard line and caromed toward the goal line.
Austin dangerously corralled the ball over his shoulder at the 2-yard line, then turned and raced down the sideline for a head-shaking 98-yard punt return touchdown.
Austin was absolutely electric on Sunday. The rookie from West Virginia University followed up his punt return touchdowns with a pair of long touchdown catches as the Rams snapped a three-game losing streak with a dominating 38-8 victory at Indianapolis.
He entered the game with two touchdowns on the season — both of which came back in Week 2 against the Falcons — and plenty of questions about whether he was worthy of his No. 8 overall draft pick and whether he’d ever live up his billing as a dynamic game-breaking player like he was with the Mountaineers.
“This isn’t supposed to be easy,” Austin recently told reporters. “Maybe it was a little harder than I thought at first. But all I can do is keep working.”
On Sunday, a week after Austin didn’t even record a catch in a loss to the Titans, the answer to both those queries was a resounding yes.
Before Sunday’s game the 5-foot-8 rookie’s season had best been characterized by his dropped passes and missed opportunities — a punt return touchdown against the Cowboys and a long touchdown reception against the Panthers that were both wiped out by penalties.
That’s not what the Rams expected when they traded up to draft him.
A year ago, during his senior season as West Virginia, Austin was a human highlight reel. He caught 114 passes for 1,289 yards and 12 touchdowns. He ran 72 times for 643 yards and three scores. He returned a punt and a kickoff return for touchdowns.
He was exactly the kind of explosive playmaker St. Louis needed to add to its roster in the offseason, giving quarterback Sam Bradford another weapon at wide receiver and also boosting the Rams’ special teams units that hadn’t been very special at all.
Austin showed how special he is Sunday while the Rams, who snagged five turnovers, showed that they are still fighting and shouldn’t be taken lightly the rest of the season.
St. Louis already led 14-0 early in the second quarter when Austin stunned the Colts with his punt return and sprinted down the sidelines.
Defensive end Robert Quinn forced a fumble in the first quarter that Chris Long returned for the first touchdown of his career. Then running back Zac Stacy scored on a 1-yard run in the second quarter for his third touchdown in two games.
On the first series after his punt return, Austin ran past cornerback Vontae Davis down the left sideline and hauled in a bomb from quarterback Kellen Clemens for a 57-yard touchdown reception to make it 28-0.
Early in the third quarter Clemens escaped trouble and connected with Austin on a short crossing route. The rookie then took off up the field for an 81-yard catch-and-run touchdown reception.
So after not recording a reception, a punt or a kick return longer than 32 yards in his first nine games, Austin on Sunday scored on touchdowns that stretched 98, 57 and 81 yards.
That’s the kind of performance that lands you on the FOX Sports Live highlights and helps justify spending a Top 10 overall draft pick on a diminutive speedster.
That’s what the Rams — and Tavon Austin — have been waiting for.
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at email@example.com.