ATLANTA — Jalen Hurts launched the pass, this one deep and on target, and very likely a touchdown — but instead, the ball glanced off the hands of Hurts’ favorite receiver, CeeDee Lamb, and fell incomplete.
Most of the Oklahoma faithful still in their seats inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium gasped — a dropped pass from Lamb? A sure touchdown? One final stab from hell’s heart, wasted?
Alas, none of it mattered. Emblematic of the Sooners’ entire evening, a holding penalty negated the whole thing, and with an insignificant whimper, Jalen Hurts’ brief stint in an OU uniform and his college football career came to a crashing halt. He jogged off the field, just under four minutes left, healthy but thoroughly beaten, giving way to the future that is Spencer Rattler.
“This is not a good feeling,” Hurt said. “This is a feeling I’ve never felt before.”
Losing to LSU, certainly, is something Hurts had never felt before. Losing in Atlanta is something he’d never felt before.
Hurts had suffered College Football Playoff losses. He had also suffered the indignity of playing so poorly he was benched at halftime of the national championship game and lost his starting job as Alabama’s quarterback.
But never had he suffered anything like the 63-28 embarrassment LSU delivered in the Peach Bowl.
“It hurts me in my heart, you know?” Hurts said. “When I decided to come to this school, I told coach Riley, ‘I’m gonna win you a national championship,’ and I failed to do that.”
Lincoln Riley coached Hurts to his finest statistical season. Hurts was the Heisman runner-up. Hurts set numerous career highs in Norman, as well as a few OU records (including most rushing yards and rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in a single season) and evolved into a good thrower and one of the game’s most dynamic quarterbacks.
But Saturday was a different story. Neither Hurts nor Riley found success. LSU out-gained Oklahoma 692 to 322 in total yards, 31 to 16 in first downs, and 532 to 225 in passing yards. It was OU’s biggest margin of defeat since the 55-19 Orange Bowl loss to USC in 2004-05.
OU fell to 12-2 while LSU improved to 14-0.
Hurts had by far his worst game of the season, a 15-of-31 passing performance in which he looked panicked and flustered. Pressured by LSU’s powerful front, he threw away a handful passes that could have easily been caught. He also just misfired on a handful of throws, including a floater that should have been a big play but instead became an interception. He ended the game without a touchdown pass for the first time this season — OU’s first since the Sooners’ 40-7 Russell Athletic Bowl loss to Clemson, which prompted Bob Stoops to hire Riley as offensive coordinator.
A five-touchdown loss isn’t on any quarterback. But given the Sooners’ defensive personnel deficiencies (one starter suspended, one injured and, in the first quarter, one ejected) as well as the magnitude of LSU’s offensive greatness (quarterback Joe Burrow won the Heisman, wideout Ja’Marr Chase won the Biletnikoff, passing game coordinator Joe Brady won the Broyles, and head coach Ed Orgeron won several coach of the year trophies), OU needed Hurts to be Superman on Saturday.
He was, instead, just an ordinary man.
It was odd that Hurts started Oklahoma’s final drive, then came out after just the one play. Riley hinted that it was Hurts who tried to finish the game before, apparently, the head coach stepped in and asked him to have a seat.
That Rattler entered when he did instead of backup Tanner Mordecai is probably a strong indication that Riley has, as expected, made up his mind that Rattler is next year’s starter. Rattler is just a freshman, but his athletic ability and arm strength are impressive. As he continues to learn the offense and grow into the role, Rattler will make Riley a fine starting quarterback for the next 3-4 years.
All he’ll need is better pass blocking and a championship defense.
Rattler says he learned a lot from Hurts this season. He’s been a good one-year mentor. So watching Hurts shrink in the moment instead of rising to the occasion had to be difficult.
Hurts finished the night with 217 passing yards and also led the Sooners with 43 yards rushing and scored two touchdowns.
There will be no postgame workout video posted on social media this time. Hurts’ work is done. His watch is ended.
“Usually, when you come up short in something, you can come back and you can fix it,” he said. “I can’t come back and fix it.
“I’ll never play college football again.”
Formerly co-host of “Further Review” and “The Franchise Drive,” columnist John E. Hoover is a college football insider on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover co-hosts The Franchise “Inside OU” Podcast with Brady Trantham and Rufus Alexander, and the Locked oN Sooners podcast on the Locked oN Podcast Network. He also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his YouTube channel at YouTube.com/c/JohnHoover, and his personal page at johnehoover.com.