Top five performances from conference championship weekend

By Stephen Kerr
Dec 5, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Michigan State Spartans running back LJ Scott (3) dives in for a touchdown during the fourth quarter of the Big Ten Conference football championship game against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Ask most athletes to choose between winning a championship and having a great individual performance, and most will tell you a championship is far better. Winning a title takes lots of hard work, guts, and teamwork.

But great individual performances often make the difference, whether it’s putting up impressive yardage or making one big play that wins the game.

College football’s championship Saturday had plenty of both. Let’s take a look at five of the top player performances from yesterday’s action.

Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson

The ACC Player of the Year had one of the best nights ever in a championship setting.

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney called his quarterback “the best player in the country” after the championship game Saturday night. Sure, you’d expect a coach to say that about one of his own players after a game like that, but Watson was the perfect example of a quarterback carrying a team on his back when he had to.

Deshaun Watson Clemson

The Tigers didn’t start out well, missing a field goal following their opening drive, botching a fake punt in the second quarter, and running up four personal foul penalties in the first half. Thankfully while some of the players weren’t at their best, Watson saved his best for last.

He threw for 289 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for a career-high 131 yards and two more scores, accounting for 420 all-purpose yards. Most importantly, his hot play kept Clemson atop the national rankings, and thanks to Watson Clemson’s perfect season will continue in the College Football Playoff.

If the Tigers’ quarterback wasn’t a lock for an invitation as a Heisman Trophy finalist in New York, his performance in yesterday’s 45-37 win over North Carolina in the ACC championship should end that debate.

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama

Henry, considered to be the favorite for the Heisman by many analysts, led the Tide to its second straight SEC championship — the first team to do that since the 1997-98 Tenessee Volunteers. But he’s focused on something other than an individual honor or a conference title as Alabama attempts to bring home another national championship to Tuscaloosa.

The Crimson Tide Heisman hopeful was the true definition of a workhorse, with 44 bludgeoning carries for 189 yards against a Florida defense that’s one of the best in the country. He put Alabama ahead to stay with a two-yard touchdown run in the second quarter and only seemed to get stronger as the game progressed.

Additionally he tied the SEC mark for most touchdowns in a season with 23 and broke Herschel Walker’s record for rushing yards in a season (1,891), set back in 1981.

Yes, it was quite a big day for the workhorse running back, who last week became just the third runner in SEC history with four 200-plus yard games in a single season.

Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford

McCaffrey ripped through the Trojan defense like a chain saw on Saturday night.

He piled up 461 all-purpose yards, including 207 rushing, four catches for 105 yards and even threw a touchdown pass, scoring a total of three times on the night.

He averaged 6.5 yards a carry against a USC defense that allowed just under 4.0 yards per rush all season. To top it off, McCaffrey broke Barry Sanders’ NCAA single-season record for all-purpose yardage (3,250). In the fourth quarter, he put the game out of reach with two late touchdowns.

It’s too bad we won’t get to see Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey in the four-team playoff. The Cardinal sophomore will have to settle for a berth in the Rose Bowl after an impressive 41-22 victory over USC in the Pac-12 championship game. All that’s left is, hopefully, an invite to the Heisman presentation.

LJ Scott and Michigan State’s epic final drive

The Spartans trailed unbeaten Iowa 13-9 in the fourth quarter before mounting one of the most incredible drives you’ll ever see in football at any level.

They marched 82 yards in 22 plays, draining over nine minutes off the game clock to give themselves a chance to win the game in the game’s final seconds. Even the touchdown that ended the drive was dramatic, as L.J. Scott fought off three Hawkeye defenders at the one-yard line and stretched the ball with one arm just inches over the goal line.

He admitted to reporters after the game it was a risky move, as reaching out with the ball can often cause a fumble. It worked for Scott, who had 14 of his 22 carries on that one drive.

The Spartans should be used to such heroics, having already performed the Miracle at Michigan to knock off the Wolverines and pulling off the upset against No. 1 Ohio State without starting quarterback Connor Cook. Now that they’ve secured their spot in the playoff, there may be more miracles awaiting them.

Sometimes, it isn’t huge numbers that win games. Sometimes it’s one final push, or in Michigan State’s case, 22 plays.

Greg Ward Jr., QB, Houston

Courtesy of USA Today Images

When Tom Herman took over this season as head coach, he may have been the only one who thought the Cougars could win 11 of their 12 games and clinch a bid for a New Year’s Six bowl game.

But that’s exactly what Houston did, dispatching Temple 24-13 in the first ever American Athletic Conference championship game.

Quarterback Greg Ward Jr. was the catalyst he’s been all season, rushing 17 times for 148 yards and two touchdowns. While he only passed for 88 yards, he didn’t throw an interception and the Owls had no answer for the Houston running game, which totaled 233 yards and a 5.8-yard per carry average.

Ward used his feet to pick up the Cougars’ running game, as the team was without starting back Kenneth Farrow, who missed the game with a high ankle sprain.

The win was Houston’s first conference title since 2006 when they were in Conference USA. They’re sure to be selected for a major bowl game, and we can only wonder what may have been if Ward hadn’t injured his ankle against Memphis.