Commentary

What is 'it' about the clutch players?

Originally Published: August 1, 2008
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

What made former Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana play so calmly in the final seconds of the fourth quarter?

What caused former Ohio State quarterback Craig Krenzel to lead his team to so many comeback victories during the Buckeyes' 2002 national championship season?

What was really running through Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan's veins last season?

If college football coaches knew the answer, they would surely bottle it and pass it on to generations of players to come. But for the most part, coaches really aren't sure what drives the sport's greatest clutch players.

From Montana to Krenzel to Ryan, some college players just thrive under pressure. It is a trait seemingly derived from the same DNA that determines the color of a player's hair and eyes.

[+] EnlargeCraig Krenzel
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCraig Krenzel delivered in the clutch for the Buckeyes.

"Those guys just have it," Tressel said. "They don't blink."

Krenzel barely blinked during his two seasons as Ohio State's starter. As a sophomore, he was thrust into the starting role when teammate Steve Bellisari was suspended for drunken driving days before the Buckeyes played rival Michigan. Krenzel led the Buckeyes to a 26-20 upset of the No. 11 Wolverines, the Buckeyes' first victory in Ann Arbor since 1987.

Afterward, Krenzel said, "I was surprisingly calm. I was more calm than before my first high school start."

The next season, Krenzel stayed remarkably cool during a series of memorable comebacks. He ran for the winning touchdown in the final minutes of a 23-19 victory over Cincinnati in the opener. Late in the season, when the Buckeyes were trying to remain unbeaten, they trailed Purdue 6-3 late in the fourth quarter. On fourth-and-1, Krenzel threw a 37-yard touchdown to Michael Jenkins with 1:36 left for a 10-6 victory.

Against defending national champion Miami in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, Krenzel led the Buckeyes to a 31-24 upset in two overtimes. He completed only seven passes, but five of his throws were for first downs. He also ran for a game-high 81 yards and two touchdowns.

"A guy like Craig, because he worked so hard to master the things he needed to do, that gave him the confidence for his innate qualities to express themselves," Tressel said. "One of his strengths was his toughness and his belief in himself. He thought, 'Hey, don't worry about it. I'm going to get it done.'"

From the start, Texas coaches knew quarterback Vince Young would get it done when the game was on the line. Young thrived in his biggest games during his college career. When the Longhorns trailed USC 38-26 with less than seven minutes to play in the 2006 Rose Bowl, Young led his team to two touchdowns. His eight-yard scramble with only 19 seconds left delivered a 41-38 victory and the Longhorns' first national title in 35 years.

[+] EnlargeVince Young
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesTexas was confident in the clutch with Vince Young at quarterback.

"I think some guys have a certain calmness and certain confidence about them," Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. "I think in some cases they come to school that way. We saw the same things out of Vince when he was at [Houston] Madison High School. We saw him make play after play after play."

Once Young arrived at Texas, Davis said it didn't take long for him to earn the trust of his coaches and teammates. Young's teammates believed in his confidence and calmness as much as his extraordinary ability to scramble and make plays from nothing

"There is a certain confidence and poise and intelligence level that makes those guys successful," Davis said. "Vince was in a class by himself because he had so many tools. Our players were drawn to him early and he had a certain magnetism about him."

Ryan was so calm in pressure situations his Boston College teammates often referred to him as "Matty Ice." The Eagles were ranked No. 2 in the country late last season, but trailed Virginia Tech 10-0 at rainy Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va. After doing nothing for 45 minutes, Ryan threw two touchdowns in the final 2:11 -- the game-winner going to running back Andre Callender with 11 seconds left to beat the Hokies 14-10.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesMatt Ryan's cool in the clutch lifted the Eagles.

"I think it's innate," Boston College coach Jeff Jagodzinski said. "I think it's just something a kid has, and the more experiences he has doing it and the more successes he has doing it, he just gets that much more comfortable and confident. Brett Favre was like that. Montana was like that. They wanted the ball in their hands in situations like that. I think a kid either has it or he doesn't."

Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who coached quarterback Peyton Manning at Tennessee and his younger brother Eli at Ole Miss, said coaches can help foster a player's ability to perform under pressure. But it's ultimately up to the player to sink or swim in those situations.

"I think you do coach it into them," Cutcliffe said. "You put them in every situation in practice over and over again. You drill it and you drill it. You never put a kid in a situation in a game that he hasn't seen before. We coach quarterbacks like we coach left tackles. It's not always easy. I try to put a lot of pressure on them."

Quarterbacks aren't the only players who have thrived in clutch situations. Kickers have often stared down game-winning field goals. Cornerbacks are left on an island against a wide receiver with the game on the line. Receivers leap for Hail Mary passes in the final seconds.

"You can certainly help a guy get prepared," Tressel said. "If he's got that makeup and you've prepared him the best you can prepare him, then he's going to have a chance to show that he is a clutch guy."

Or, if you're lucky, one will just show up on campus.

Former Virginia tight end Heath Miller, now a starter for the Pittsburgh Steelers, played so spectacularly in pressure situations that his teammates gave him the moniker "Money."

"Guys like Heath have faced pressure before and have been successful so they expect success," Virginia coach Al Groh said. "He was a very intense player, but he had a calmness about him. It was pretty easy to see that he had that quality very early. Whatever 'it' is -- he's got it."

Whatever "it" really is.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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