The secret behind Oklahoma’s magical Heisman run

Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) runs the ball against Houston in the first half on Sunday. (AP)
Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) runs the ball against Houston in the first half on Sunday. (AP)

NORMAN, Okla. – Listen closely, and you can hear the robotic voice from late-night informercial infamy promising instant results. “Call now, and all you need to do is add a quarterback.”

That’s what this unprecedented and uninhibited run of Oklahoma quarterbacks under Lincoln Riley feels like, right? Like it’s so easy to run through and throw over opponents that the pitch is as simple as hawking a Shake Weight, ThighMaster or Soloflex.

You can hear that voice urging you to dial the 1-800 number sometime after last call: Transfer now, and receive pinball yardage totals, broken records and, if you’re one of the first 100 callers, you’ll get your very own Heisman Trophy.

How else to explain the inexplicable run that Oklahoma is sprinting toward for a third consecutive season under third-year coach Lincoln Riley? In the wake of Heisman Trophy seasons by Baker Mayfield (2017) and Kyler Murray (2018), Oklahoma’s latest transfer quarterback marvel, Jalen Hurts, shipped and handled overmatched Houston on Sunday night, 49-31. Hurts accounted for six touchdowns and, along the way, demanded Heisman Trophy attention.

The most fascinating experiment in college football proceeded with predictably robust and rousing results in its opening salvo. Hurts is the most accomplished transfer at OU – or, really, anywhere – in this era of college football. He arrived after going 26-2 as a starter at Alabama, winning the SEC Player of the Year as a freshman and compiling 48 touchdown passes and 5,626 yards in his three seasons there.

Hurts referred to his situation as “unprecedented” multiple times postgame and summed up his Alabama-to-Oklahoma transfer perfectly: “I’m back where I’m supposed to be.”

And he joins what needs to be considered the most coveted position in all of this era of college football, like a modern version of playing tailback at USC in the Student Body Right generation. There’s no position in football that virtually assures success like Oklahoma quarterback. It carries with it the cachet of hitting clean-up for the Yankees, playing on the frontline for the Lakers or quarterback for the Packers.

The 508 total yards and three rushing and three passing touchdowns against Houston from Hurts weren’t reality a surprise when you consider taking a player of Hurts’ talent, experience and production and combining him with an offensive mastermind of Riley’s caliber. Riley has emerged as the creative and innovative answer, this decade’s version of Urban Meyer or Chip Kelly. And the results have been equal-parts devastating and enjoyable.

Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) throws during the first half against the Houston Cougars. (USAT)
Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) throws during the first half against the Houston Cougars. (USAT)

In the annals of college football, many a bold game-one prediction has been met with mockery by Columbus Day. So we’re not yet handing the Heisman Trophy to Jalen Hurts this season – which would be an unprecedented third straight for one school. We’ll wait for him to play a team that didn’t give up 70 the last time they played. But would you really bet against him at this point? Would you bet against the Sooners – with some nice moments of grit and edge under new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch – making the playoff for a third consecutive time?

Hurts took a Ginsu knife to the Houston defense finishing 20-for-23 passing for 332 yards amid a Sunday night showcase in Norman. He added 176 more rushing yards, averaging 11 yards a clip. No, the Cougars won’t be mistaken this year for the 1985 Bears – or even Tom Herman’s 2016 Cougars – but it was dizzying, clinical and confirms Hurts as a weekly must-watch, just like his predecessors.

What did Hurts look like in his new shade of Crimson (other than his red-taped cleats, which were Judy Garland-esque)? Well, Riley highlighted Hurts’ skill set with a deft mix of quarterback counters, tight end slip routes and good ole downfield verticals. There were option runs, crossing routes and zone reads. The sheer variance and volume of things Riley did with Hurts, combined with elite weapons in junior tailback Trey Sermon (91 rushing yards) and future first-round receiver CeeDee Lamb, portends boundless possibility for this Oklahoma offense.

Hurts finished with his most impressive night amid a starry career, as he ended up with 61 more yards than his highest output for Alabama at Mississippi State in 2016, when he totaled 447 yards. He set a Sooner record for yards in a debut and registered the fifth-highest total yards in a game in school history.

Perhaps the most telling part of Hurts’ debut in Norman was how casually it was received. Lincoln Riley isn’t prone to hyperbole, but his tone sounded a little bit like he was pleased with a solid blitz pickup in the Sooners’ seventh spring practice. Riley’s gems included: “He played good. He played good.” He added: “He’s an impressive athlete.”

Riley’s understated reactions speak to the culture of expectations of that position, as the coach was pleased but not blown away.

Hurts showed that part of Nick Saban's monotone have stuck with him, as he deflected any praise or hints at future success being inevitable. But he did have some insight into his unusual journey: "God has put me in some crazy, unprecedented situations," he said. "But nothing I can't handle."

He added about starting for two storied programs: "There's this whole unprecedented situation, playing at a school like Alabama and Oklahoma. Ain't many people in the world who can say that they've done that."

If this flicking away of Houston like a pesky June bug could be summed up in one play, that would be Hurts leaping in the air to complete a 47-yard touchdown pass to Lamb in the second quarter. Lamb was so open streaking on a go route that some versions of replay didn’t include a Houston defender in the television screen. In reality, Houston’s D.J. Small was precisely 10 yards behind Lamb when the ball nestled into his hands.

The freeze frame offered the perfect metaphor for a night that reminded all of college football that everyone is still chasing Riley, no matter who his quarterback is.

And you have to wonder if some accomplished college quarterback wasn’t sitting at home tonight, watching the advertorial for Heisman Trophy play and wondering whether he should pick up the phone.

Call now. Operators are standing by. Results are guaranteed.

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