NORMAN — Coaches can say they have full faith in a player, but there are limited ways to show it. One steadfast way is to give him the ball in the fourth quarter with the game on the line.
In that sense, Oklahoma’s confidence in running back Brennan Clay is unwavering.
“He’s been consistent, and he’s taken care of the football. He’s ran it with a physical presence. All those things lend themselves to why he’s played well in the fourth quarter,” OU offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said.
It’s easy to look at Clay’s team-leading 450 rushing yards and understand why Heupel feels that way about him. When Clay has picked up those yards fully illustrates why he’s held in such high regard.
The 12th-ranked Sooners (5-0, 2-0 Big 12) have played three games where the outcome was in doubt in the fourth quarter — the 16-7 victory over West Virginia, the 35-21 win over Notre Dame and last week’s 20-17 victory over TCU.
Clay averaged 51.3 fourth-quarter rushing yards in the those game. The average might have been skewed somewhat by the 76-yard, game-winning touchdown run he produced against the Horned Frogs. But the original intention of that drive was to grind out the victory.
For the last two seasons, that’s meant giving the ball to Clay.
“Coach will put me in a position to make plays late in the game, and being able to come up with the big plays,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of those big plays.”
Clay didn’t just start becoming productive late in games in the last month.
Remember the overtime touchdown run in last season’s Bedlam game?
The Sooners hope he’ll come up with more when they face Texas (3-2, 2-0) at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
Sure, the fourth quarter hasn’t meant much in the last two Red River Rivalries. But OU is a different team now. It wins games in the fourth quarter.
“We do a great job, harping all week that it’s a 60-minute game and if it comes down to the wire, we have to do that,” Clay said. “We really harp on finishing with the ball in our possession, and being able to run out the clock. Finishing the defense, depleting them and doing what we need to do to win.”
It takes a strong running game and strong running backs to do it. OU hasn’t truly had a feature back since Adrian Peterson’s last season in 2006. Clay is going to share the job with seniors Damien Williams and Roy Finch. It gives OU a fresh running back on the field at all times.
All three have their strengths, but Clay is the one who seems to have made the biggest jump since last season.
“He’s stronger, I think he has put on some strength and maybe a few pounds, so I think overall, I think he’s stronger, more powerful,” OU coach Bob Stoops said. “He’s always been reliable. Smart player. And I think it’s fair, too, with all these guys, with him, splitting up the reps, they’re fresh when they get their opportunities. I think, like when he hit that the other night, had he already carried it 18 times, he may not get in. But he comes in there, he pops it, he’s fresh, he’s got good legs, he’s able to take it the distance. I think there’s a little bit of that element, too.”
Whatever the factors, Clay has been at his best with the clock winding down. The Sooners will continue to ride him.
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