Seven-Step Drop: Jalen Hurts' Continued Evolution Makes Oklahoma Even More Dangerous

Hurts is quickly putting his own stamp on the Sooners' high-powered offense

PASADENA, Calif — Oklahoma's trip to the Rose Bowl to play UCLA on Saturday was many things.

 

A chance to create new memories in light of what happened the last time the Sooners were at the hallowed venue against Georgia a few years ago? Sure. A chance to hit the road against a Power 5 opponent? In most respects, yes. A primetime showcase against a historic name-brand program? Absolutely.

 

More than any of that though, it was a chance for us to see just how far behind college football's old revolutionary offensive guru — Chip Kelly — had fallen behind the game's newest bright mind on that side of the ball in Lincoln Riley. As it turns out... quite a lot.

 

OU routed the powder blues 48-18 in a game that was over nearly as soon as it began. While it's easy to point out the disparity between one of the sport's truly elite programs at the moment and one whose rebuild looks stuck in time, the contest did serve as yet another reminder that Riley is as good as they come at the moment and a third straight Heisman Trophy getting shipped to Norman grows more likely by the week.

 

It's hard to forget amid all the early hoopla surrounding Jalen Hurts' move from Alabama to Oklahoma that the kid was pretty good in the first place. The 26-2 record as a starter with the Tide gets talked about a lot but it's almost as though Tua Tagovailoa trotting out onto the field against Georgia in the national title game wiped away all memories of the SEC's one-time offensive player of the year, the one who had a sterling 48:12 touchdown-to-interception ratio during his time in Tuscaloosa.

 

The tools have always been there for Hurts, even if there needed to be a little polish applied. After Saturday's 439-yard outburst that was as effortless as they come, it's safe to say that's being applied in practice and in games by Riley on his budding new pupil.

 

"He played pretty good. He made the majority of plays that he was supposed to make and then a few where he made a couple off script that were important plays," the OU head coach said of Hurts. "He took some steps from the last couple of weeks. It's a laundry list of things to get better at, and that is how I will approach it with him."

 

That's the scary thing about Oklahoma this season: their ceiling keeps moving upward. Hurts is still learning the intricacies of what the Sooners do offensively, not getting time running through things like either of his two predecessors did before the lights turned on each Saturday. Likewise, Riley is still getting to know what quarterback does well, incorporating wrinkles that lead to things like rushing for 99 yards on the team's opening drive.

 

"I think we're headed in the right direction," added Hurts, who still oozes the lessons learned from the Nick Saban finishing school of dealing with the media. "The intent for us is coming out and playing a complete game. I don't think we did it tonight. We can improve."

 

Hurts is no Kyler Murray — he's a more punishing runner even if he's not quite as elusive (though he's still pretty good in that department). Hurts isn't Baker Mayfield either, still developing as a midrange passer to go with his ability to launch the ball downfield. Hurts is simply Hurts, somebody still evolving into something entirely different and one who has already shown a knack for delivering on the biggest stages college football has to offer.

 

Such an evolution just might be what Oklahoma needs to become one of the few serious threats this season to the current heavyweights of the sport in Clemson and old frenemy Alabama.

 

"He's a special player," said Kelly from the bowels of the Rose Bowl. "He's as good as anybody I've ever had the opportunity to coach against. Jalen, Kyler Murray, who we coached against last year, and Andrew Luck are probably the three quarterbacks that I've coached against (that are the best)."

 

An impressive short list no doubt from a guy who has been around the block and is widely credited for helping make commonplace a few of the concepts that Hurts ran on Saturday.

 

2. Mark Dantonio's rearranging of the deck chairs off to predictable start

When the Michigan State head coach announced in January that he was keeping his offensive staff in place but was making the bizarre decision to simply have them coach different positions, the reaction inside and outside of East Lansing was predictable disbelief. After all, the Spartans have struggled on that side of the ball for years now and that has largely held the team back from reaching the top of the Big Ten again given that their defensive units have consistently been some of the best in the FBS.

 

No matter though, the foxholes were already dug and minor changes for change sake were all that the ever-loyal Dantonio was ever going to do.

 

That decision, in light of MSU's all too avoidable loss to an Arizona State team starting a true freshman on the road, seems to have played out as expected and we're not even into October. The stagnant offense in green and white remains just as it ever was even with the title changes for Brad Salem, Dave Warner, Don Treadwell, and Jim Bollman. Those same voices that have been trying (and failing) to produce the desired yards and points needed to keep up with the caliber of play of their defensive counterparts have fallen flat once again. Now there's a real question mark about Michigan State and where they go from here because more of the same simply isn't going to cut it with four teams in the top 13 coming up on the docket.

 

Dantonio deserves all of the blame for this even if he is much more likely to dig his heels in if anything. Though he values continuity as a way out of this mess that is most certainly to his detriment at MSU lately and especially with this year's team. It was painfully obvious in last season's 7-6 RedBox Bowl loss to Oregon that serious changes needed to be made, just as it was in the season opener or on Saturday afternoon.

 

Dantonio had the perfect opening to pull a Bob Stoops, who swooped in for Lincoln Riley and rode off into the sunset. Nobody would have batted an eyelash — not even the coaches he could have pushed out the door. But that didn't happen. There was no lower-level offensive genius being brought in to fix things. There was no splashy coordinator hire.

 

Heck even across the state, equally stubborn Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh gave in and made the move to bring in Josh Gattis' new system. The jury is still out on that decision but at least Big Blue was smart enough to realize that the definition of insanity, as the old adage goes, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

 

In college football nowadays, one simply has to watch Michigan State's offense consistently shoot themselves in the foot to discover just how well that saying rings true. And the worst part for Sparty just might be that everybody saw it coming nine months ago.

 

3. Hats off to the troops!

 

 

4. ACC's no good, very bad weekend

It's really hard to put into words what a thoroughly mediocre weekend it was for the ACC. It seems generally well established that the conference is the worst Power 5 league at the moment but at least John Swofford's baby can at least take solace in the fact that they sport the defending champion and a near-lock for a return trip to the playoff in Clemson.

 

Because after that? Well, how about that upcoming men's basketball schedule being released?

 

It all started with the rarest of unicorns: a conference clash that was a non-conference game between North Carolina and Wake Forest on Friday night that highlighted yet another critical late-game mistake by the league's referees. Then Boston College went and got blown out — yes blown out — by Kansas of all teams.

 

That one might be worse perception-wise than losing to an FCS foe — which of course the ACC can claim to do given that Georgia Tech never led in their overtime loss to The Citadel. Virginia Tech had their own struggles against the other half of Division I too in escaping against Furman at home amid another lackluster offensive output by the Hokies. Duke, Miami, and Louisville at least took care of business but the issues were widespread and lengthy otherwise.

 

Pat Narduzzi couldn't do basic math as Pitt fell at Penn State. NC State was run off the field by a West Virginia squad that is in a hefty, hefty rebuild. Even the Tigers didn't look all that sharp in their eventual win over Syracuse at the Carrier Dome and Coastal Division favorite Virginia escaped against Florida State thanks to yet another referee-inspired controversial ending.

 

Add it all up and there's just not a lot of meat on the bone along the coast in what looks to be a very long season ahead for the ACC.

 

Related: Week 3 Horrors for the ACC

 

5. Can the Pac-12 actually get worse... before it gets better?

Out in everybody's other favorite league to throw under the bus, the Pac-12, Larry Scott's crew had another unmemorable Saturday and even worse results.

 

Entering with a chance to notch some really solid non-conference wins, the conference muddled along. The state of Arizona held up the Pac-12 with some really solid outcomes as ASU went into East Lansing with a true freshman QB and emerged with a win while the Wildcats surprised Texas Tech with defense we haven't seen in awhile down in Tucson. Washington State has gotten out to a good start but the level of competition is enough to make one pause a bit no matter how good Mike Leach's newest quarterback piles up yards and points.

 

Elsewhere though: blah.

 

Stanford was throttled by UCF and looked like they were stuck in molasses against the Group of 5's best. UCLA was run off the field (see above) as the new offensive guru showed what the old one is missing. Perhaps worst of all was the good vibes USC built up last week evaporated in a loss to BYU that should all but seal Clay Helton's fate in L.A. (more on that later).

 

Maybe the worst part of the start to this 2019 campaign out West is the lack of hope however.

 

The moment Utah loses a game, the conference will be all but written off in the College Football Playoff chase. There's healthy skepticism Washington and Oregon can even enter that postseason conversation and besides, we've seen enough woes from each in the second half of games to take away the benefit of the doubt before even hitting October.

 

Long-term though, the picture is even bleaker when you look beyond the upcoming months.

 

As good as the Ducks have been recruiting and playing under Mario Cristobal, there's still a very real question as to who the answer will be once their homegrown quarterback leaves for Sundays (as the program knows all too well in the wake of Marcus Mariota's departure). Washington hasn't come close to winning big games nationally, something Chris Petersen made his name on at Boise State. As good as Stanford has been the past decade, the Cardinal have undoubtedly been trending in the wrong direction the past few years from the level they were at and simply aren't producing the kind of talent they once were either.

 

Elsewhere, Arizona remains stuck in neutral and for all the good Herm Edwards has done at ASU, the Sun Devils still remain far removed from the Pac-12 South-caliber squad he was supposed to build when hired in the first place. Colorado has a new coaching staff and UCLA is no closer to turning the corner under Chip Kelly now than they were when he was hired. Leach came close to leaving Wazzu in 2017 and there's no assurance he remains making Whole Foods lemonade from three salt packets and a bag of Sour Patch Kids up in Pullman for the next several seasons.

 

There's a chance that USC gets out of this rut they've been on ever since Reggie Bush was last mentioned on campus and return to national prominence with their upcoming coaching and athletic director hires. The Trojans haven't built up much goodwill in terms of proving folks right in that department but we'll see if things can get settled in Los Angeles and the rising tide lifts all boats. Maybe the Ducks are rolling along where they can get over the hump or things finally start to click in Westwood.

 

At the moment though, it kind of seems like things can still get worse out West before they get better and that's not something anybody in the Pac-12 footprint wants to hear.

 

6. Time for USC to end the Clay Helton charade

Even before Saturday's disappointing loss in Provo, it was pretty clear that a coaching change was going to be made at USC in perhaps the most foregone conclusion in college football this season. That much was written in ink earlier in the week when the Trojans announced athletic director Lynn Swann "had resigned" following a meeting with the school's new president.

 

It's been an open secret that USC has been looking around for Swann's replacement already and it won't be too long before the same is true of Helton's seat. The head coach has certainly delivered some highlights during his short tenure at Troy (a Rose Bowl, a Pac-12 title) but it's been painfully obvious ever since he had the interim tag taken off that he's not the caliber of coach that can get USC back into the nation's elite as a regular College Football Playoff contender. On Saturday afternoon, a timeout by BYU was the only thing that helped him make the right decision to go for a 4th-and-short and the number of mistakes down the stretch was simply too much to handle for a squad that has continuously shot itself in the foot despite having a talent advantage on just about everybody on the schedule.

 

USC has been a poorly coached team for years now and it's an issue that starts at the top.

 

Which is why that is going to be an on-going talking point the rest of the year around the program and doubly so if the team loses at home to Utah on Friday night. The talk is already running hot about Helton's replacement and it will be a fever pitch come mid-October if they're unable to run through their next three games (all ranked opponents) with a true freshman quarterback.

 

It's a difficult situation to be sure but the school might be better off pulling the ripcord that everybody is bracing for in December and doing it now instead of waiting. Helton seems classy enough to continue to coach even if the school were to announce that a permanent change will be made following the end of the Trojans' 2019 season. That would not only officially kick off the job search that is already underway, but allow the team itself to focus more on their weekly opponent instead of all the talk outside the program — which undoubtedly can affect their performance as the losses mount.

 

That way, and only that way, the team can live up to their motto and Fight On for 'ol SC instead of continuing some charade to protect their head coach's job that is already set to turnover.

 

7. Sunflower State shines

It was a good weekend for a lot of folks but it's hard to top what the newbies out of the state of Kansas accomplished on the road.

 

You can start under the lights on Friday night, where Kansas didn't just snap their ridiculous FBS-leading skid against Power 5 opponents away from home — they fully bludgeoned a Boston College program that was thinking highly of itself and aiming to be called the second best in the ACC this season (which isn't saying much, but it's early in 2019). It was the Jayhawks' first road victory against a Power 5 opponent since Oct. 4, 2008 and spanned a decade-plus of misery and six different head coaches.

 

Leading the charge? None other than the Mad Hatter himself in his biggest win since likely beating Florida back in 2015.

 

"If anybody wants to know why a guy would come back to college football, this tells you how fun and how important college football is," Miles said afterward.

 

Maybe just as big as the win itself was how it unfolded for KU. The team got behind early, didn't have much in the way of good quarterback play… and then flipped everything on its head starting in the second quarter. They ran, ran and ran some more and generally looked a tick faster than the Eagles did the rest of the night. They did allow AJ Dillon to rush for 151 yards but were surprisingly feisty on the back end to contain QB Anthony Brown.

 

While everybody knows tailback Pooka Williams is a Big 12-caliber player, perhaps the rest of their league will take note of some of the others who stepped up on both sides of the ball too. This is still a program that will struggle to make it to a bowl game for the foreseeable future but it's also hard not to laud Miles' crew for ending an ignominious streak and doing so in convincing fashion. There's still plenty of time left for the experiment with the ex-LSU head coach to fail in Lawrence but, at least right now, the decision to hire the most famous grass-eater in sports wasn't as bad of an idea as we all thought initially.

 

A day later to the Southwest, it was Chris Klieman's turn to carry the banner as Kansas State upset Mississippi State in Starkville.

 

The Wildcats rallied in the fourth quarter and, as expected, looked a lot like the coach's old team at North Dakota State in bullying their way to a victory. The defense was salty (leading to QB Tommy Stevens getting benched on the other side) enough to overcome the ups and downs of the offense and a few mistakes on special teams but it was an overall effort in key moments that really helped KSU pull it out in the end.

 

There's still plenty of work left to be done given the obvious roster limitations but Saturday's win over an SEC West program simply felt big for those looking to build things back up the right way in the Little Apple. There's still not much margin for error with the 'cats but then again, that was the case in the prior administration as well. We'll see if this can propel the team to some surprises come conference play but it's hard not to think there's a new Wizard in town after the state's biggest weekend on the gridiron in over a decade.

 

Tweet of the Week

 

 

Play of the Week

 

 

Stat of the Week

 

Oklahoma has rushed for 300-plus yards AND passed for 300-plus yards in a game just 13 times in program history. The Sooners have accomplished that in seven of their last 10 games.

 

Superlatives of the Week

 

Best player: UCF QB Dillon Gabriel

Team of the week: Kansas

Goat of the Week: Steve Addazio, Boston College

Heisman Five: 1. Jalen Hurts (Oklahoma), 2. Justin Fields (Ohio State), 3. Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama), 4. Johnathan Taylor (Wisconsin), 5. Joe Burrow (LSU)

Projected Playoff: 1. Clemson, 2. Alabama, 3. Ohio State, 4. Oklahoma

Projected New Year's Six: Rose Bowl — Utah vs. Wisconsin, Sugar Bowl — Georgia vs. Texas, Orange Bowl — Virginia vs. LSU, Cotton Bowl — Notre Dame vs. UCF

 

Super 16

 

Here's my latest ballot in the FWAA/NFF Super 16 Poll:

 

1. Clemson

2. Alabama

3. LSU

4. Georgia

5. Ohio State

6. Oklahoma

7. Auburn

8. Notre Dame

9. Utah

10. Texas

11. Wisconsin

12. Penn State

13. Michigan

14. Texas A&M

15. Oregon

16. Iowa

 

Best of the rest: UCF, Oklahoma State, Boise State, Florida, Washington, Washington State, Wake Forest, Virginia, Memphis

 

Pre-Snap Reads

 

Notre Dame at Georgia

It looks like the Bulldogs have been building up to this game so far this season, looking sharper and sharper with each passing week. The Irish have been solid but not spectacular so far in 2019 and will need to play out of their minds between the hedges if they want to pull out one of their biggest wins in years. Notre Dame's defensive line against the UGA offensive line is a great matchup but overall this one looks like much more of a mismatch than their last meeting in South Bend (Georgia -14).

 

Michigan at Wisconsin

It's hard to get a read on these two Big Ten squads as the Badgers have pummeled everybody in their path… but the competition hasn't been great. The Wolverines, meanwhile, have been far from sharp early. It feels like a really close one in Camp Randall and whoever can take care of the ball likely has the edge. Michigan hasn't been able to do that yet and it would be fool's gold to buy into Big Blue doing that against the West division's best (UW -3).

 

Auburn at Texas A&M

Fun fact: Bo Nix is No. 97 nationally in quarterback rating while Kellen Mond is No. 63. Both sides sport some pretty good defenses but I'm more confident the Aggies' signal-caller looks more like the player we thought he would be coming into the year while the true freshman looks more like a true freshman in his first true road start (A&M -3.5).

 

 

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