The 8 Most Clutch Performances in College Football

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistJuly 12, 2012

The 8 Most Clutch Performances in College Football

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    It's easy to love college football, but explaining why isn't always a simple matter.

    The many reasons we tune in every Saturday to watch our favorite teams compete can sometimes boil down to one or two plays by one or two players in a clutch moment that separates victory from defeat, immortality from obscurity.

    Those clutch performances that bring glory and fame to our school are the moments we remember best, and give us just another reason to love the college game.

    Here's our list of the eight most clutch performances in college football history.

Smith to Robiskie

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    Ohio State's long football history is full of great performances by players that litter the college and pro football halls of fame.

    But one of the more recent clutch moments makes its way onto our list.

    In 2006, Ohio State was making its way through the season as the No. 1 team in the country.

    But, in this game against Penn State, the Buckeyes looked anything but the top team in the land and led the No. 24 Nittany Lions by a slim score of 7-3 in the fourth quarter.

    With the ball on the Penn State 37 yard line, Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith took the snap and was immediately at risk of being sacked.

    Smith scrambled, and scrambled some more, before finding himself all the way back at the 50 yard line.

    As if in a video game, Smith spun from the pursuit, rolled to his right, and lunched a bomb down field from his own 47 yard line to the end zone and the waiting hands of Brian Robiskie.

    The touchdown put Ohio State up 14-3, and the Buckeyes went on to win, 28-6, earning the Big Ten title and a trip to the BCS National Championship Game.

Miracle at Michigan

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    There are few plays in college football more remarkable than the epic “Miracle at Michigan.”

    This clutch performance by Colorado isn't only important for it's last-second heroics, or it's impact on the national scene (Colorado was then the AP No. 7 team while Michigan was No. 4), but it's amazing for the fact that it was accomplished on the road in front of the biggest college football crowd in the nation.

    With just six seconds remaining Colorado trailed 26-21.

    Colorado quarterback Kordell Stewart took the snap from his own 36 yard line and heaved the ball as far as he could down field.

    After the ball was tipped, Colorado's Michael Westbrook fell to the ground while hauling in this last-gasp effort as time expired.

    Heartbreaking for the 100,000-plus Michigan fans who fell silent as Colorado mobbed the field, but it still ranks as one of the greatest plays in college football history. 

Little Giants

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    Michigan State and Notre Dame enjoy one of the great, long-lived rivalries in college football.

    While much of the last decade has seen the game lose a bit of national prominence, it's resurgence over the past couple of seasons has seen some made-for-television moments.

    No recent Notre Dame-MSU moment has been bigger than the famed “Little Giants” play call from MSU head coach Mark Dantonio in 2010.

    Michigan State and Notre Dame, both ranked teams, had battled for four quarters to an eventual tie game. In overtime, Notre Dame took a field goal lead, and held Michigan State to their own three-point attempt on fourth down.

    Rather than taking the safe route by kicking the field goal and playing another overtime, Dantonio decided the game would be won or lost on one play.

    The fake field goal will live on in Spartans' lore for decades. A national television audience watched as holder and punter Aaron Bates tossed a 29-yard touchdown pass to tight end Charlie Gantt to secure a 34-31 victory.

    As if to underscore the risk of the moment while reminding everyone that it's still just a game, Dantonio suffered a heart attack that evening.

Cannon Blasts Ole Miss

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    With LSU constantly at or near the top of the college football rankings these days, it's easy to forget that the Tigers have had other eras of equally lofty accomplishments.

    In 1959, the top-ranked LSU Tigers met up with then No. 3 Mississippi Rebels in their annual SEC grudge match.

    Both teams were in the midst of a defensively-dominant season, having given up a combined two touchdowns through the first seven weeks of the season.

    With Ole Miss leading 3-0, Billy Cannon took in a punt on his own 11 yard line. Cannon immediately started up field and broke seven tackles en route to the end zone.

    The touchdown gave LSU a 7-3 victory, and handed Ole Miss its only loss of the season. Cannon was awarded the Heisman Trophy at season's end, but the Rebels would have the last word. They defeated the Tigers in the Sugar Bowl at season's end.

Luck of the Irish in the Snow

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    A program like Notre Dame is absolutely filled with clutch performances, so it's difficult to choose one above the rest.

    But the 1992 “Snow Bowl” against Penn State stands out. Not only because of the weather, but also because of the spectacular and thrilling finish.

    Notre Dame, then the No. 8 team in the nation, trailed then No. 21 Penn State for much of the afternoon.

    Trailing by seven later in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame quarterback Rick Mirer led the Irish down inside the Nittany Lions' five yard line only to see the drive stall.

    With less than 30 seconds remaining, head coach Lou Holtz had no choice but to call up a fourth-down pass play normally reserved for two-point conversions.

    Irish running back Jerome Bettis hauled in the two-yard touchdown pass to pull the Irish to within one point.

    Rather than settling for a tie (as there was no overtime in 1992), Holtz opted for one last gasp at victory over Joe Paterno's Lions.

    Mirer's pass to the corner of the end zone was caught by Reggie Brooks, who dove to haul in the one-point Notre Dame victory.

    Notre Dame finished the season by defeating USC before dispatching Texas A&M, 28-3, in the Cotton Bowl Classic.

The Championship Rose of Texas

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    Vince Young's career at Texas is filled with highlight-worthy moments.

    But his most famous, and most clutch performance, came during the 2006 Rose Bowl, which was also the national title game for the 2005 season.

    USC entered the game on a 34-game win streak (later vacated after the Reggie Bush scandal), and had won the Rose Bowl in 2004 over Michigan. Texas, for its part, was returning to the Rose Bowl for the second-straight year (and second time in Texas history), having defeated Michigan in 2005.

    The Trojans and Longhorns battled back and forth for most of the game, but USC held a slim lead with time winding down in the fourth quarter.

    That's when Young took his game to another level and marched his team down the field before being stopped on third down at the USC 9 yard line.

    After taking the snap and surveying the field, Young was unable to find any of his receives uncovered. He then tucked and ran to his right, sneaking into the corner of the end zone with just 19 seconds remaining.

    The touchdown gave Texas a one-point lead (stretched to three by the ensuing two-point conversion, also scored by Young on the ground) and eventual victory.

Hello Heisman

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    The Michigan-Ohio State college football rivalry is the greatest rivalry in sports.

    Along with that title comes countless performances on both sides that could be defined as “clutch.”

    But Desmond Howard's 93-yard punt return against the hated Buckeyes not only led Michigan to victory, but also cemented Howard's Heisman Trophy hopes that season.

    The play was immortalized by the call from the “voice of college football,” Keith Jackson.

    “Look at that! Oh my goodness! One man, goodbye . . . Hello Heisman!”

    As if that wasn't enough, just after Jackson's Heisman comment, Desmond Howard strikes the now-famous pose made popular by this moment.

Newton Holds Back the Tide

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    We've had several clutch plays on our list, but here we'll honor a clutch game (or at least half) performance.

    In 2010, Auburn had emerged as the team to beat by season's end, marching through the SEC, beating three ranked opponents before meeting up with arch-nemesis and No. 9-ranked Alabama in the annual Iron Bowl.

    Auburn struggled mightily during the first half, and looked like a completely defeated team in the second quarter, trailing 24-0.

    The second half began the epic turnaround for the Tigers as Cam Newton led his team back from the edge of the abyss.

    On the second play from scrimmage in the third quarter, Newton completed a 70-yard touchdown pass to Terrell Zachery, cutting Alabama's lead to 10 (24-14) with more than 14 minutes remaining in the third.

    With 4:25 remaining in the quarter, Newton took the ball into the end zone on a one-yard touchdown run bringing Auburn to within three points.

    Alabama added a field goal before the third quarter ended, but that would be the last time the Crimson Tide added anything to the score.

    Trailing 27-21 to start the fourth quarter, Newton and the Tigers finally took the lead with nearly 12 minutes remaining after a seven-yard touchdown pass to Philip Lutzenkirchen.

    Auburn's defense then held the Tide, ensuring a 28-27 victory and an SEC-West divisional title. The Tigers went on to beat South Carolina to capture the SEC Championship before defeating Oregon in the BCS National Championship Game.

    While Newton certainly was the star of the Auburn comeback, the entire team—particularly the defense—deserves credit for this monumental victory.

    Never before had Auburn erased a 24-point deficit to win, and never before had the Crimson Tide surrendered such a lead to lose.

    Often times, the record-setting and championship-creating clutch performances make the best stories, and that's why we've given this epic come-from-behind victory the top spot on our list of most clutch performances in college football.