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SEC's Mr. Clutch: On the run

7/21/2015

We took a look at some of the SEC’s most clutch quarterbacks Monday. Now let’s shift our attention to the runners.

Note that we can’t say running backs here because some of the conference’s most lethal runners -- Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, in particular -- play quarterback. Prescott, in fact, had the ball in his hands on important runs as much as anybody in the nation.

We certainly can’t ignore that today as we scan the ESPN Stats & Information database in an attempt to identify the SEC’s most reliable runners in situations where it mattered the most.

Clutch Factor No. 1: Third- or fourth-down runs that resulted in a first down or touchdown

Quarterbacks -- especially those in run-heavy offenses like Army, Navy and Boston College -- carried the ball more than anybody on third and fourth downs last season, accounting for 13 of the top 15 FBS players in rushing attempts. But nobody ran on those key downs as much as Prescott.

Overall, Mississippi State’s Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback was credited with 69 rushing attempts on third and fourth down, which led the country. He was also first in such runs that resulted in either a first down or touchdown (he had 35 for 345 yards and seven scores). Further, only Baylor’s Shock Linwood (nine) accounted for more touchdowns on third- or fourth-down runs.

Now with running back Josh Robinson out of the picture, we might expect Prescott to carry an equal or greater workload on those key downs, when the Bulldogs need to move the chains to extend a drive or get into the end zone.

Interestingly enough, Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles also made the national top 5 in attempts on third or fourth down, although because of sacks and hits behind the line of scrimmage, 31 of his 54 attempts went for zero or negative yardage. Nonetheless, Towles’ overall third-down conversion rate (56.5 percent) was comparable to that of Prescott (57.1) and Towles’ fourth-down rate (75.0) was slightly better than Prescott’s (60.0).

If we look solely at running backs, Missouri’s Russell Hansbrough ranked among the nation’s most reliable runners on these key downs. He trailed only Prescott on third- or fourth-down runs that resulted in a first down or a score (31 runs for 260 yards and four touchdowns), picking up a first down on 63.2 percent of his third-down runs and on 100 percent of his fourth-down runs. Only eight of his runs went for zero or negative yards.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Hansbrough handling an expanded workload this fall, with quarterback Maty Mauk breaking in an entirely new batch of receivers.

Auburn’s Cameron Artis-Payne tied for sixth in the FBS with 28 attempts for 173 yards and two scores.

National top 10: 1. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State (35); 2. Russell Hansbrough, Missouri (31); T3. Shock Linwood, Baylor (30); T3. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State (30); 5. Tyler Murphy, Boston College (29); T6. Jordan Howard, UAB (28); T6. Drew Hare, Northern Illinois (28); T6. Cameron Artis-Payne, Auburn (28); T9. Jay Ajayi, Boise State (27); T9. James Conner, Pittsburgh (27).

SEC top five: 1. Dak Prescott, Misssissippi State (35); 2. Russell Hansbrough, Missouri (31); T6. Cameron Artis-Payne, Auburn (28); T23. Mike Davis, South Carolina (21); T23. Jonathan Williams, Arkansas (21).

Clutch Factor No. 2: Touchdowns and YPC in the second half or overtime

Third- and fourth-down conversions are critical factors in an offense’s success, but so is getting the job done as a game’s conclusion draws near. Let’s examine which SEC rushers were most effective after halftime.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who saw him play that Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon was the national name to know here. Gordon ran for 97.86 yards per game AFTER HALFTIME -- an average that trailed only Indiana’s Tevin Coleman (100.67) -- while Gordon also averaged 8.78 yards per carry and scored 14 touchdowns.

The SEC didn’t have a player who posted video game stats like that, but there are several who deserve mention. Prescott and Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall tied for 19th in the FBS with seven touchdown runs after halftime. Alabama’s Derrick Henry had six, while Hansbrough, Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Nick Chubb and Florida’s Matt Jones all had five.

And let’s examine players with at least 20 carries after halftime in order to gauge the top performers on a per-carry basis. That eliminates most who broke long runs on trick plays like fake punts, but it also eliminates Auburn receiver Ricardo Louis, who ran nine times for 126 yards (14.0 ypc) on the Tigers’ jet sweeps and South Carolina’s Pharoh Cooper (10 runs for 107 yards), who is dangerous taking handoffs and direct snaps in addition to his status as one of the SEC’s top receivers.

Like Louis, Auburn’s Corey Grant mostly made hay on runs around the ends. He led SEC ballcarriers with 20-plus attempts after halftime with an average of 7.26 yards per carry. Ole Miss’ Jordan Wilkins (7.23) and Jaylen Walton (6.98) were both at or around seven yards per carry, as well.

Overall, the SEC had nine runners average better than six yards per carry after halftime (on a minimum of 20 attempts), including possible Heisman candidates Henry (6.86), Chubb (6.48) and LSU’s Leonard Fournette (6.04).

National top 10: 1. JoJo Natson, Utah State (28-340, 12.14 ypc); 2. Tanner McEvoy, Wisconsin (27-269, 9.96); 3. Justin Stockton, Texas Tech (28-270, 9.64); 4. Shaun Wilson, Duke (42-399, 9.5); 5. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin (156-1,370, 8.78); 6. Aaron Green, TCU (69-589, 8.54); 7. Breon Allen, East Carolina (44-374, 8.5); 8. Tevin Coleman, Indiana (144-1,208, 8.39); 9. Noah Copeland, Navy (63-512, 8.13); 10. Reggie Whatley, MTSU (56-442, 7.89).

SEC top five: Corey Grant, Auburn (27-196, 7.26); Jordan Wilkins, Ole Miss (31-224, 7.23); Jaylen Walton, Ole Miss 52-363, 6.98); Derrick Henry, Alabama (86-590, 6.86); Trey Williams, Texas A&M (44-294, 6.68).

Clutch Factor No. 3: Touchdowns and YPC in games with score differential of seven points or less

What about who came up big in close games? That's another factor in being labeled as a clutch performer. For our purposes, we’ll examine players’ production in games where the two teams were separated by seven points or less.

The nation’s top scorer here was Louisiana Tech’s Kenneth Dixon (15 touchdowns) and the other top performers were largely Big Ten backs – names like Gordon, Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott, Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford and Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah. But the SEC still has some names worth mentioning.

Hansbrough, Chubb, Robinson, Prescott, Artis-Payne, Arkansas’ Alex Collins and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon all tied for 18th nationally with six touchdowns in games where the teams were separated by seven points or less.

And on a per-carry basis (again, we’re using the 20-attempt cutoff), Gurley was in position to post numbers like the aforementioned Big Ten backs before eligibility issues and a knee injury robbed him of half the season. Gurley averaged 8.64 yards per carry and ran for 475 yards in the close games where he participated. His freshman running mate, Chubb, was otherwise the SEC’s top performer here, averaging 6.62 yards per carry.

Finally, another reason why the running back battles at Auburn and South Carolina are worth watching is because of how heavily those teams relied upon now-departed runners in tight situations. Artis-Payne (127 attempts in games with a scoring differential of seven points or less) and South Carolina’s Mike Davis (112) were both in the nation’s top 15 in attempts. Departed Alabama back Yeldon tied for 22nd with 104 attempts.

National top 10: 1. Jhurell Pressley, New Mexico (39-538, 13.79 ypc); 2. Devon Johnson, Marshall (71-678, 9.55); 3. Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State (109-937, 8.6); 4. Terry Baggett, Army (20-171, 8.55); 5. Justin Stockton, Texas Tech (21-167, 7.95); 6. Byron Marshall, Oregon (22-173, 7.86); 7. Tanner McEvoy, Wisconsin (29-228, 7.86); 8. Noah Copeland, Navy (51-398, 7.8); 9. Brandon Burks, Troy (26-195, 7.5); 10. Trevor Knight, Oklahoma (22-164, 7.45).

SEC top five: Todd Gurley, Georgia (55-475, 8.64); Nick Chubb, Georgia (87-576, 6.62); Brandon Wilds, South Carolina (65-406, 6.25); Jaylen Walton, Ole Miss (52-310, 5.96); Alex Collins, Arkansas (75-442, 5.89).