Play Of The Year: Clayton Tune’s 4th Down Scramble

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There was one play to keep the drive, the game, and the season alive. After two incompletions and a loss of a yard on a draw play, Houston faced 4th and 11 at their own 24 with 3:50 on the clock. Before the 4th down snap, Memphis had a 99.9% chance of winning, according to ESPN Analytics.

The Cougars went four-wide, and Memphis responded with a three-man rush, dropping eight into coverage. Running back Stacy Sneed, believing the OL could protect against three, went downfield toward the chains. But the three-man rush dominated the offensive line and pushed them back to 15, where Tune had dropped back to throw.

That was the ballgame. The season was finished. Tune was dead. How does Tune recover from this?

Tune on 4th and 11

And then, through grit, determination, and some poor tackling, Houston’s play of the year happened. As big a play as Marcus Jones’ kick return against SMU last year. Or Alton McCaskill’s overtime run against ECU.

Tune somehow slips between two rushers, who both got their hands on him, and took off upfield. He makes it to the 17 and twists his shoulders like he’s about to throw to the right, faking out linebacker Cincir Evans. Evans meets him at the 20 and leaps in the air, trying to alter the pass. By then, Tune had squared his shoulders and cut to his right. Evans heaves at him, but it’s too late.

Now on the left hash, Tune eyes another defender, DB Jaylon Allen, ahead. A yard short of the original line of scrimmage, Tune plants his left foot and cuts back right. On the wrong line of attack, Allen can’t turn his hips fast enough, and Tune gains a step. Allen dives at his feet at the 27 but misses, the fourth missed tackle.

Tune high stepped to avoid Allen’s ankle tackle, and by the time he gets to the 30, he encounters yet another Memphis defender ahead, Xavier Cullens. But he also senses another coming from his back left, William Whitlow, one of the rushers that missed him in the backfield.

Once again, Clayton cuts to his right. Cullens dives at his feet at the 33 and gets his left hand on Tune’s hip and one on his right foot. Tune starts to fall forward, but he can see the first down marker and gets a foot down right at the yellow line. He pushes off that right foot to lunge forward as he falls, first down secured and the season still alive.

From the time he plants his back foot at the 14-yard line until he gets to the 39, Tune encounters eight Memphis defenders (9 if you count Whitlow twice) and escapes five would-be tacklers.

Hell, watch it again:

The team rallied around their leader after he showed his spirit on the 4th down run. Tune played the best football of his career in the final 3:21 of the game: after the 11-yard scramble, he was 11/13 for 98 yards and two touchdowns.

There are a lot of heroes and a lot of good fortune that turned three bad quarters into an instant classic. But Clayton Tune stepped up for his team in a play that could define his career.

Liberty Bowl scoreboard / Photo by Jennifer Messinger (via Facebook)

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