AUBURN, Ala. — Every time Derrick Henry came off the field in the fourth quarter, Nick Saban was there to check on him. As carries mounted up and started approaching previously unseen levels at the University of Alabama, the conversation kept repeating itself.
“Are you good? Are you tired?” the head coach kept asking.
“I’m good,” was always Henry’s response.
Actually, he was great as No. 2 Alabama wrapped up the Southeastern Conference’s West Division title and will face Florida next week in Atlanta.
With a record-setting performance, Henry finished with 46 carries for 271 rushing yards and one touchdown as Alabama won its annual showdown with Auburn 29-13 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The junior running back earned every bit of it.
The carries were a single-game record at Alabama. The yards were an Iron Bowl rushing record, and it was the 17th straight game in which he’d reached the end zone.
Moreover, with potentially thee games to go, Henry became the Crimson Tide’s all-time leader for rushing yards in a season with 1,797, topping Trent Richardson’s 1,679 yards in 2011.
“It means a lot to me, my teammates, the offensive line—everyone on the offense that worked hard to get here, to accomplish something so big,” Henry said. “We just had to stay locked in and focused.”
While Henry averaged 5.9 yards per carry, his longest gain was just 30 yards—which was a testament to how tough those yards were.
Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC) executed 21 plays in the fourth quarter, and all but two were handoffs to Henry. Auburn knew he was getting the ball every time, and he still churned out 114 rushing yards over the final 15 minutes.
“I didn’t realize it because we didn’t have any long runs, but that shows how durable he is—and how strong he is to be able to pound it nonstop,” senior quarterback Jake Coker said. “He’s like a machine.”
|Alabama All-Time Rushing Seasons|
|Mark Ingram Jr.||1,658||2009|
|Crimson Tide Record Book|
Had the game been played in Tuscaloosa, the home fans would have been cheering “Heis—man,” but Henry almost certainly ended the chase here.
He’s now one of only three backs in Southeastern Conference history with four games of 200 yards or more in a season, joining Herschel Walker (Georgia) and Bo Jackson (Auburn). LSU’s Leonard Fournette had three earlier this season against Auburn (19 carries for 228 yards), Syracuse and Eastern Michigan.
“We’d really like for somebody else to run the ball, but it got tough to take him out, and he seemed to get stronger as the game goes on,” Saban said. “It’s hard to take him out at the end though."
“He’s the go-to guy, and he didn’t want to come out. My hat’s off to him as a competitor. He really inspires everyone on our team—the way he competes and the way he plays, the toughness that he runs with. What a spirit.”
Henry’s performance was also despite poor field conditions as numerous players on both sides slipped when trying to make cuts. Consequently, the first half turned into a Punt, Pass and Kick competition only without the first two parts.
Instead, with Henry gaining 102 rushing yards on 16 carries in the first half and Coker, connecting with freshman Calvin Ridley for a 46-yard-deep pass, junior kicker Adam Griffith appeared to vanquish whatever demons might still be lingering from the Kick-Six here two years ago with four of his five field goals.
They were—in order—from 26, 40, 26 and 50 yards when Auburn (6-6, 2-6 SEC) put someone in the end zone for a possible return.
“I didn’t think I had a monkey on my back,” Griffith said. Yet he still had a lot of teammates congratulate him after making it with room to spare (and later hit a fifth field goal in the second half, from 47 yards).
Meanwhile, his counterpart, Daniel Carlson, connected from 24 and 44 yards but missed from 48. Auburn’s passing game was essentially held to two completions to running backs as Melvin Ray’s 8-yard catch on 3rd-and-10 was the lone catch by a receiver.
|Henry By Quarter|
Consequently, Alabama came very close to putting the game out of reach early in the third quarter when it finally reached the end zone.
Shortly after a Coker scramble, ArDarius Stewart—who had dropped a pass in the end zone and run the wrong route on a third down—had man coverage wide, and the quarterback saw it. After avoiding two pass rushers, he threw a dart to the wide receiver for a 34-yard touchdown.
“Amazing,” Coker said about playing in the Iron Bowl. “Indescribable.”
Facing 3rd-and-12 at its own 23-yard line, Auburn may have been a play away from essentially waving the white flag when wide receiver Jason Smith did his own version of the miracle catch against Georgia in 2013, tipping the ball twice to himself for a 77-yard touchdown.
With the Auburn marching band playing “Livin’ on a Prayer” from Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet, Auburn had new life—only to get trampled by Henry down the stretch. With senior Kenyan Drake (arm fracture) still on the mend—the only other Crimson Tide running back to have a carry was freshman Damien Harris with one.
“What Derrick has done for this team—because this team has needed him to do what he does—he’s made as significant impact on his team as any player we’ve ever had,” said Saban, who coached the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram Jr.
The most carries Ingram had in a game that season was 28, and he only had one 200-yard rushing performance (South Carolina, 246).
“The guy never gets tired,” senior center Ryan Kelly said about Henry. “We ran the ball a lot, and it was good to see him get the touchdown.”
Maybe the question should be: Can anyone stop him? You can’t ask that about anyone else in college football this season.
“I don’t know,” Henry said. “I’m just trying to make plays.”
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.