TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — There’s been no such thing as a University of Alabama football game this season without a highlight from junior running back Derrick Henry, and the Cotton Bowl was no exception.
In the fourth quarter he took a handoff, and while going to his right he stiff-armed Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun so hard he flipped the prize defensive lineman en route to an 11-yard touchdown.
That kind of play wasn’t unusual for the Heisman Trophy winner. What was unusual was that it was just one of two carries by Henry in the fourth quarter.
“Most of the time that’s when we try and take over the game,” sophomore left tackle Cam Robinson said.
However, Alabama obviously didn’t need Henry to do more during its impressive 38-0 victory over Michigan State that put it in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. Had anything else been on the line, perhaps that would have been different, but head coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin otherwise decided to save him for Jan. 11's matchup with Clemson.
“It was a great game by our offense, playing fast and finishing strong,” Henry said. “Great job by our quarterback; our receivers did a great job. Our offensive line played as a whole.”
|Derrick Henry's Rushing Per Quarter|
|Quarter||Rushing (TDs)||Average per carry|
|Totals||359-2061 (25)||25.6-147.2 (1.8)|
|Compiled by the author from Alabama stats|
Although No. 2 Alabama (13-1) opted to go in another direction, it didn’t change the fact that Henry has become the best closer in college football. Overall, he’s had more rushing yards in the first quarter of games than in the fourth, but there have also been four times he didn’t play during final the 15 minutes and two others he had fewer than five carries.
One was at No. 8 Georgia, another blowout win for Alabama.
Henry finished with 75 rushing yards on 20 carries and two touchdowns against the Spartans, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think his numbers could have doubled, if not better, considering the way he played down the stretch.
A perfect example was at rival Auburn, where Alabama’s final 14 play calls were the same: handoff to No. 2.
“Derrick wasn’t tired,” said senior linebacker Reggie Ragland, who enjoyed watching every moment of it. “Derrick kept running harder as he's going. That’s the type of guy he is, his mindset goes up when the competition goes up. When it’s crunch time, it’s eating time.”
“It’s like playing with the biggest guy on the playground, like ‘What are you going to do to stop this guy?’ It’s just about impossible. The guy is crazy,” senior quarterback Jake Coker said. “It’s awesome to have a guy like that in the backfield and know he’s on your side.”
Henry finished that record-setting night with 46 carries for 271 rushing yards and a touchdown as Alabama won its annual showdown 29-13 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
In the process he became the Crimson Tide’s all-time leader for rushing yards in a single season and just the third running back in Southeastern Conference history with four games of 200 rushing yards or more in a season, joining Georgia’s Herschel Walker and Auburn’s Bo Jackson.
“It was like watching Jack Morris pitch into extra innings,” CBS announcer Gary Danielson said, referring to Game 7 of the 1991 World Series when the ace threw 10 scoreless innings as the Minnesota Twins beat the Atlanta Braves 1-0.
Henry has since gone on to top Walker’s SEC single-season rushing record, the 2,000-yard barrier and continued to score at least one rushing touchdown in every game.
Yet none of it really surprised his teammates. Henry started terrifying them before even taking the field for the first time, not only with his 6'3", 242-pound frame, but his incredible work ethic.
They saw it every day in the weight room, when he pushed trucks around a track and flipped monster-truck tires around over the summer and even during a spring-break trip, when he led them through some drills on the beach at Panama City, Florida.
"I just didn't want to miss a beat. You know what I'm saying?” Henry said. “We were having fun, but I was like 'Hey we gotta get some work in.' So we started doing pushups, running in the sand, just doing anything to get us in a sweat to make us feel good and that's what we did.
"I just love working hard. I feel like hard work, if you want things to happen you gotta work hard for them.”
That drive and determination was something that didn’t waver as Henry developed from being the guy just beginning to figure out what playing at this level entailed to the featured running back on a perennial national contender.
It didn’t happen overnight as Henry concedes he wasn’t quite ready for all that as a freshman, especially the every-down responsibilities and doing all of the little things that hadn’t previously been required of him. He improved in those areas, like stonewalling blitzers and blocking assignments, as much as any other.
“He has a real burning desire to be a really, really good player and works really hard at it,” Saban said. “Derrick's the kind of guy that he gets in a rhythm, and the more he carries the ball the better he gets.”
The numbers back that up as Henry’s average yards per carry goes from 5.2 in the third quarter to 6.1 in the fourth.
In comparison, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey’s drops from 6.1 to 4.9. LSU’s Leonard Fournette’s dips from 9.1 to 5.2, and Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott from 7.5 to 6. Clemson running back Wayne Gallman’s decreases from 6.1 to 5.1.
Consequently, Saban often has a tough time holding Henry back after he starts punishing defenses in second half when no one wants anything to do with the fast-moving guy wearing size 14 shoes who’s bigger than most linebackers.
Ask LSU, when Henry had 210 rushing yards and then-Heisman front-runner Leonard Fournette only tallied 31. Or Texas A&M (236). Or Mississippi State (204). Or Auburn…
Those performances along with his pre-Michigan State numbers—including leading the league in rushing in conference games with a 179.2-yard average, tallying 180.1 per game against ranked teams and 144.4 versus eight rushing defenses ranked in the top 50 nationally and averaging 105.3 yards per game after contact (69 percent of his rushing yards)—are why he won the Heisman.
Now it’s time for the ultimate test, and there’s no bigger stage in college football than the one that finishes a season.
“He’s got the endurance,” senior center Ryan Kelly said. “I mean, the guy can run for days. Defensive guys, when we start going fast in the third and fourth quarter, them getting off the ground, running back there and trying to get lined up, then you’ve got Derrick Henry running at you and you have to tackle him, do it all over again, that kind of wears down defenders.
“I can’t [speak] for them, but a guy like his stature, his size, his speed, I wouldn’t want to do that every time. It would suck.”
|Derrick Henry By Quarter|
|Wisconsin||6-54 (1)||3-21||4-72 (2)||0-0||13-148 (3TD)|
|Middle Tenn.||3-3||7-27 (2)||8-66 (1)||0-0||18-96 (3)|
|Ole Miss||9-37||4-17||2-31||8-42 (1)||23-127 (1)|
|La.-Monroe||9-34 (1)||3-15||1-3||0-0||13-52 (1)|
|Georgia||7-22||6-55 (1)||10-47||3-24||26-148 (1)|
|Arkansas||9-26||6-28||5-16||7-25 (1)||27-96 (1)|
|Texas A&M||9-153 (1)||6-25 (1)||10-33||7-25||32-236 (2)|
|Tennessee||5-36 (1)||4-17||9-33||10-57 (1)||28-143 (2)|
|LSU||8-30||7-60 (1)||12-39 (2)||9-81||38-210 (3)|
|Miss. St.||5-13||2-75 (1)||7-17||8-99 (1)||22-204 (2)|
|Char. So.||9-68 (2)||0-0||0-0||0-0||9-68 (2)|
|Auburn||7-50||9-52||11-45||19-114 (1)||46-271 (1)|
|Florida||7-24||12-41 (1)||13-70||12-54||44-189 (1)|
|Mich. St.||5-15 (1)||8-23||5-27||2-10 (1)||20-75 (2)|
|Compiled by the author from Alabama stats|
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.