Rising to the occasion

NORMAN, Okla. — One of the Sooner offense's biggest horses couldn't quite get out of the stable the other day, but another one certainly jumped out of the gates and flew down the race track.

Running back Damien Williams, hobbled by an ankle injury, carried just three times for seven yards; tailback Brennan Clay, on the other hand, put together a career day amassing 157 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries.

It became the first time in Clay's career that he broke the 100-yard plateau and he crushed it, all the while averaging 5.8 yards per rush.

A total breakout performance for a guy that was already silently averaging more than six yards per carry during the 2012 season heading into the contest.

"I told Brennan I thought it was the best game he's played," said running backs coach Cale Gundy. "You know, he's been in our system now for three years and he's been a very good role player for us. He's somebody that comes out here every single week and every single day and prepares hard and does a great job in all of his film evaluations. He takes great pride, and his number was called and he was playing well and I didn't see any reason to change anything."

Earlier last week, head coach Bob Stoops said that if Williams was unable to go, last year's walk-on-to-scholarship sensation Dominique Whaley would be the starter.

But Clay instead got the nod, and there's no question he made the most of it.

"You come to a program like this--I really consider it another running back U besides SC, a couple other schools--anybody can go down at any moment," Clay said. "You just gotta be able to step up and be able to take it to ‘em. I was able to do that. I was blessed enough to be able to do so."

Certainly it's a satisfying time for the 5-foot-11, 201-pound back from San Diego, Calif., who some people have said has been one of the more disappointing backs in OU history.

He came out of Scripps Ranch High School as a five-star and the No. 6 running back in the country, but never truly panned out immediately, suffering a concussion his freshman season in a non-conference matchup against Florida State.

From that point, Clay had to battle behind DeMarco Murray and Mossis Madu in a 2010 season that saw the Sooners claim their seventh Big 12 Championship and a Fiesta Bowl victory over Connecticut.

Even Roy Finch had more carries (85) than Clay, who finished with 36 that season.

In 2011, of course, it turned into the Whaley show.

Until the feature back went down with a broken ankle, the star had amassed 627 yards and nine touchdowns on 113 carries.

Clay didn't get the bulk of his 75 touches until after Whaley suffered that setback.

Even so, Finch remained ahead of Clay on the depth chart and shouldered the load as the No. 1 guy the rest of the season while carrying 111 times for 605 yards and three scores.

Flip forward to 2012 and Clay was again the No. 3 guy on the depth chart.

Whaley started out as the top back, but Williams quickly dazzled to emerge there, leaving Clay behind both of them.

But Clay battled to this point and eventually won out as the more consistent of the two behind Williams as the Sooners traveled to Ames, Iowa, last weekend.

That's why he earned the bulk of the snaps.

"There's great backs everywhere," Clay said. "You know, at Oklahoma they're gonna recruit you because you're good. You gotta be able to make plays and you gotta be able to compete."

He obviously did both of those the other day, and in a number of ways.

Before the half, Clay showed a nice blend of patience and power, as well as vision, in recording runs of five and nine yards that would ultimately allow the Sooners to open it up with a couple of deep passes leading to a score that extended OU's lead to 14-6 at intermission.

Clay even demonstrated some elusiveness that he hasn't exhibited throughout most of his days so far in a crimson and cream uniform.

"You know, it's just instinct, being able to play the game, being a ball player," Clay said. "You gotta make plays, especially at this level."

In the second half, he found pay dirt on his best play of the day, a beautiful 18-yard TD scamper.

"I just remember coming around the left side," Clay said. "Trey [Millard] and Rip [Aaron Ripkowski] pulled around for me. Rip got a nice hook block. Trey came up and he cleaned up the linebacker, and I was able to see the safety one-on-one, and I just made a move, got underneath and crossed the end zone.

"I almost stumbled and fell down, but I kept my head up. Head up always keeps you up, and was able to get in the end zone."

Ironically, that last sentence kind of sums up Clay's career so far.

Had he hung his head when getting thrown behind Murray and Madu two years ago, or behind Whaley and Finch last season, this opportunity might not have come.

But he kept his head up and kept fighting.

"Being able to go out on Saturday, [for] anybody that's their dream," Clay said. "Going out on Saturday, I got the start and put up good numbers. It was fun being able to go out there, of course."

Now, it's about keeping and building upon the momentum he's gained from last week's performance.

"It builds confidence, of course, going into this game," Clay said. "Baylor's just another game and we're gonna go out and execute on Saturday just like we always do."

It's unclear still who will get the start this weekend as Williams continues to battle that ankle injury.

Presumably if he's able to go, the former Arizona Western JUCO transfer and, before that, high school rival of Clay will get the start.

If he's not able to go 100 percent, however, Clay likely gets the nod again.

This time he'll be even more confident just because the game is really starting to come to him more after a dominant day like he put together.

"Most definitely, the game slowed down tremendously and we just went out and were able to execute," Clay said.

Even his position coach noticed that.

"He gets as many reps as anybody out here in practice, and he has for the last two years," Gundy said. "but, your performances, you gotta move it from the practice field out to the game field. Again, he's been here a while. He knows what's expected of him. He knows blocking schemes. He knows pass protections.

"You know, he played 71 snaps, which is a ton of snaps. He's probably never played more than 30 in a game. I thought his stamina and I thought his attitude and everything stayed in there."

Continue to be responsible for similar production, and so will he the rest of the season and his career.

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