MIAMI GARDENS, Florida — Just minutes after springing into the end zone to give his team one final chance, Kyler Murray walked off the slickened grass at Hard Rock Stadium with a towel over his head.
Murray has an inordinately bright past, and his future in professional sports — baseball or football? — looks equally glamorous.
But in this moment, all he wanted was dark solitude.
He steps away as Oklahoma’s seventh Heisman Trophy winner, one of the most accomplished players in school history, a two-sport star and a dual threat quarterback almost without equal.
But in this moment, all he saw was his OU football career coming to a painful end.
“That’s the part that hurts the most,” Murray said afterward. “Spending the last couple years here, this place has been home to me. I’ve loved every part of it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I wanted to win a national championship. Just fell short.”
Alabama saw to that with a 45-34 College Football Playoff semifinal victory on a warm, humid Saturday night at the Orange Bowl.
Murray did something only one other FBS player has ever done — throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a single season — and against one of the game’s best defenses, he passed for 308 yards and ran for 109.
But it wasn’t enough against a Crimson Tide team loaded with talent and attitude.
“He did all he could,” said Bama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
Tagovailoa finished second to Murray in the Heisman Trophy race, but he finished first on this night.
Murray’s slow start mirrored that of his team. He completed just 1-of-5 passes for 18 yards in the first quarter, and was held to negative-1 rushing yard.
After each team had two full possessions, Alabama had 14 points and 130 total yards, while Oklahoma had zero points and zero net yards. Eventually, the Tide led 28-0, and it looked like it might get really ugly.
“I don’t know,” Murray said. “I wish I could tell you. Started off obviously too slow. They’re a good team. We outplayed them the rest of the game.”
True, after Alabama rolled to a four-touchdown lead early in the second quarter, the Sooners outscored the Crimson Tide 34-17 and outgained them 447 yards to 289.
“You can’t go down (28-0) against good teams like that,” Murray said. “I think that’s the moral of the story.”
Murray’s case certainly wasn’t helped by the ineffectiveness of star wideout Marquise Brown. He led the Sooners in catches, yards and touchdowns this season, but coming off a pulled muscle in his left foot in the Big 12 Championship Game, Brown played but had zero receptions.
“Hollywood, he obviously wasn’t as good as we probably thought he was gonna be,” coach Lincoln Riley said. “But I thought there was honestly just some rust.”
“I knew I wasn’t 100 percent,” Brown said, “but I wanted to go out there and do my best and help in any way that I could.”
To Sooner fans, the beginning looked a lot like another recent game here: the 2004 Orange Bowl, wherein USC delivered a 55-19 beatdown on the Sooners.
But, as Riley said, this team didn’t quit. This team had plenty of fight to stage a rally.
When things got really bad early on, he pulled his team aside during a timeout and delivered a passionate, animated message.
“I just wanted us to know that we were still in it,” he said. “Reminded them of all the adversity we faced this year, all the tough games, all the times people counted us out. … No magic words. That was just the guts of this team, and I was making sure they didn’t forget that.”
Riley, too, didn’t have an explanation for the slow start.
“We just kind of picked a bad time,” Riley said. “We played our worst ball at the beginning, very simply. We were just kind of waiting for that spark, and it took longer. They just outplayed us early. I think it’s as simple as that. It was the tale of two games. They completely outplayed us early and then we completely outplayed them after that.”
Part of it, of course, was that Alabama is an historically good college football team. Defensive tackle Quinnen Williams lived in the OU backfield early, routinely disrupting the explosive Sooner offense before it ever got going. And Tagovailoa was brilliant, hitting 24-of-27 passes for 318 yards and four touchdowns, including a 50-yard strike to DeVonta Smith on the first play of the game. Smith finished with 104 yards and a touchdown. Tulsan Josh Jacobs led the Crimson Tide with 158 all-purpose yards, including 98 rushing.
That all that happened and Oklahoma still had two onside kick attempts in the fourth quarter to try to cut it to a one-score game is a testament to this team’s grit, Riley said.
“It’s agonizingly close. It is,” Riley said. “But we’ve got to continue to take steps in the right direction, and we’re gonna continue to try to get that done.”
And as for Murray, he’s still noncommittal about the possibility of playing professional football. He’s already signed a $4.7 million baseball contract, and now, spring training awaits. Probably.
“My goal was to be remembered here,” he said. “I think that should be anybody’s goal, to step on campus and make a name for yourself. Make a place better than you found it. I hope I did that. I just hope everybody knows I never quit.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. 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 also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.