NEW YORK — Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray won the 84th Heisman Trophy on Saturday night at the PlayStation Theater in Times Square, beating out Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins to become the Sooners’ seventh Heisman winner.
After researching the numbers of the three finalists, plus two other quarterbacks and five running backs, I came to an unexpectedly easy decision to vote for Murray.
First, a little background: I’ve been a Heisman voter for 21 years. I’ll watch as many games as possible while I’m covering whatever team I’m covering (since 2004, it’s been almost exclusively Oklahoma), and I’ll watch all the highlights and read the stat sheets on Saturday night or Sunday.
But I won’t actually start thinking about the Heisman Trophy winner until November.
I strongly believe that calling someone a leader in the Heisman race in October or even early November is just flat irresponsible, quite stupid and actually a great disservice to the players who are still the process of playing a full schedule.
I’ll start compiling a list of players I’ve noticed throughout the season sometime in late November, and I’ll keep an eye on them the rest of the season. Then, when all the games are played, I’ll dig into each player: What are his stats? Was his team successful? Was his team successful because of him? Did he miss games, and how did his team do without him?
After all that, there are two criteria I like to lean on to decide which player gets my vote: How did he do against the best competition he faced? And what was his role when the game was on the line?
Some years, my list starts with 20 or so candidates. Some years, it’s a dozen. The majority of those are often quickly weeded out and my final list is paired down to 3-5 deserving candidates.
Some years it takes 2-3 hours. Some years more.
This year, although I started with 10 realistic candidates and quickly whittled it down to three, the total project took about eight hours to determine a winner. In examining the bodies of work of my final three, I filled eight pages of a legal pad with numbers, statistics and other comparisons.
Here’s why, after a long and deliberate process, Murray was my runaway winner:
It’s probably too easy, or lazy, to rely on the proverbial “Heisman moment.” Instead, what do the players do when the game is on the line?
Well, Tagovailoa famously hasn’t had to find out this season. Bama fans point out that Tua’s raw statistics don’t stack up to Murray or Haskins because the Tide’s leads have been so comfortable, he’s on the sideline in the fourth quarter.
Sorry, but if I’m returning a Heisman ballot, how a guy performs under pressure — how he plays in crunch-time, in winning-time — matters as much as anything.
The only real pressure Tagovailoa faced this season came in the SEC Championship Game, when Georgia hit and harrassed him and sent him to yet another fourth quarter on the sideline — this time with a high ankle sprain. Tagovailoa’s numbers with a championship at stake were bad: 10-of-25 (40 percent) for 164 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Alabama needed its backup quarterback, former starter Jalen Hurts, to come off the bench and rescue them.
Nothing against OU backup Austin Kendall, but with Murray on the bench in a close game for any extended time, Oklahoma does not win.
Murray’s fourth-quarter numbers were ridiculous, whether it was pulling away from resurgent Iowa State, being pushed to overtime by Army, executing a 21-point comeback against Texas in the Cotton Bowl, holding off high-powered rival Oklahoma State, outlasting explosive West Virginia in Morgantown, or solving the Longhorns in the Big 12 Championship Game, Murray was at his best when the games got tense.
In the fourth quarter of one-possession games, Murray was spectacular: 16 rushes for 196 yards (12.25 per carry) and a touchdown, and 25-of-30 passing (83.3 percent) for 360 yards (14.4 per completion) with four touchdowns and no interceptions (and an efficiency rating of 228.13).
On OU’s 15 fourth-quarter and overtime possessions where the opponent was within one score, Murray directed nine touchdown drives, two field goal drives, one missed field goal drive, one punt (after a holding penalty), one fumble (at the end of a 56-yard pass from Murray) and one kneel-down (thanks to Murray’s clutch fourth-down throw). That’s incomprehensibly good.
Tagovailoa’s fourth-quarter numbers in one-possession games this year all happened last Saturday: 1-of-4 for 13 yards.
It’s certainly hard to hold Alabama’s team dominance against Tagovailoa, but we are only left to guess at how good he might be in the fourth quarter of close games. Yes, he was amazing last year, coming off the bench to win the national championship with clutch throws against Georgia. But that was last year. This vote is for the most outstanding player of the 2018 season, not for the most outstanding second half of the 2017 title game.
You want to tell me Tagovailoa shouldn’t be penalized for what he didn’t do in the fourth quarter? I’ll counter by telling you Murray shouldn’t be penalized for what he did do — what he had to do.
Murray’s fourth-quarter body of work is irrefutable.
How did Murray and Tagovailoa respond after their defense surrendered a touchdown? The difference was pronounced.
Murray took the field 52 times after the Sooner opponent scored a touchdown. Tagovailoa took the field just 16 times after the Tide opponent reached the end zone.
On those 52 possessions, Murray either threw or ran the ball on 170 plays (3.27 plays per drive) and accounted for 1,803 yards (10.61 per play) and 16 touchdowns. On Tagovailoa’s 16 response possessions, he executed 46 total plays (2.88 plays per drive) for 413 yards (8.98 yards per play) and five TDs.
Murray rushed 52 times for 445 yards (8.6 yards per play) and six touchdowns, and completed 82-of-118 passes (69.5 percent) for 1,358 yards (16.56 yards per completion) with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions.
Tagovailoa rushed 10 times for 63 yards (6.3 yards per carry) and a touchdown, and completed 28-of-36 passes (77.8 percent) for 350 yards (12.5 yards per completion) with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
Both players produced a touchdown every 3.2 possessions after the other team scored a touchdown.
As a team, Oklahoma responded with 27 touchdowns and five field goals on its 52 drives with Murray at QB after an opponent’s touchdown, a rate of 61.5 percent. Alabama scored 10 touchdowns and a field goal on its 16 such possessions, or 68.7 percent.
But the pressure on Murray was immense to produce one every time out.
Murray (190.74 rating) wasn’t quite as efficient as Tagovailoa (196.11) at throwing the ball in these situations, but Murray was far more productive through the air (by a margin of 4.15 yards per completion) and was 6-7 times more productive running the ball.
With his team needing to respond after a score, Murray was more dangerous and more dynamic.
Coaches dream about playing complementary football. Alabama did it. Oklahoma didn’t.
Alabama turned the ball over 13 times this year and yielded only one field goal (three points). On those 13 possessions, the opponent punted 10 times, including nine three-and-outs that netted a mere 10 total yards.
Oklahoma also turned the ball over 13 times this season, but opponents feasted with eight touchdowns and a field goal (59 points). On those 13 possessions, the Sooners forced just two punts, including one three-and-out.
This certainly isn’t a measure of a quarterback’s numbers, but it does show the enormity of the situation that Murray faced to respond — or else. If the Sooners turned the ball over, the opponent responded with a touchdown 62 percent of the time. If the Crimson Tide turned the ball over, the opponent never got close to scoring a touchdown.
If Tagovailoa or the Alabama offense committed a turnover, it didn’t matter one bit. They didn’t have to be perfect, or even great, for the Tide to win games. The defense was that good.
If Murray or the Oklahoma offense turned it over, it was a disaster, six points the other way, and the only winning response was to answer with a score. The defense was that bad.
Now combine having to handle that kind of pressure (or lack of pressure) with the performance of each quarterback, and Murray wins in a landslide.
We all know Alabama is stacked with talent. The Tide crushes it in recruiting every February (and now December). But how big is the difference? How much more talent does Tagovailoa have to work with than Murray?
Using rankings from Rivals.com, the last five recruiting classes (some in the 2014 class are now fifth-year seniors) have been significantly more pronounced in ‘Bama’s favor.
The Crimson Tide has hauled in 25 5-star recruits, while OU has landed three. ‘Bama has signed 70 four-star recruits, while OU has taken in 61. And the Tide has secured 25 3-star recruits, while OU has leaned on 48.
The average star rating in that time frame: Alabama 3.93, Oklahoma 3.48. Over five recruiting classes, that’s a massive difference.
This illustrates the amount of football talent Alabama has built around Tagovailoa in Tuscaloosa, and shows that Murray really did do more with less in Norman.
Comparing the 2018 Heisman Trophy finalists
|Dwayne Haskins, Ohio State||12-1||348||496||0.702||4580||47||8||175.8||86.9|
|Kyler Murray, Oklahoma||12-1||241||340||0.709||4053||40||7||205.7||96.0|
|Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama||13-0||199||294||0.677||3353||37||4||202.3||94.2|