NORMAN, Okla. – It might not be all that important to them at the moment, but Heisman Trophy positioning will also be at stake Saturday when Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts and Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger face off at the Cotton Bowl.
Hurts has been impressive since transferring from Alabama, leading the nation in passing efficiency and all quarterbacks with 99.8 yards rushing per game. He’s done it with a business-like approach that focuses on steady growth and labels positive talk as “rat poison.”
“It’s all mentality and it’s all in your head,” Hurts said.
While Ehlinger doesn’t mind stirring things up – remember his spat with Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray a year ago – Hurts stays relaxed.
“I think in general, in life, when you make emotional decisions it kind of hurts you,” he said. “You’ve got to keep the main thing the main thing. Prepare, trust everything and move forward.”
Hurts built his reputation at Alabama, where he was 26-2 as a starter and played in three national title games. His passing has improved significantly this season; he’s fifth nationally in completion percentage at 75.2.
Hurts’ rushing ability creates a different wrinkle than Oklahoma presented with previous quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and even the speedy Murray. He does much of his damage when defenses sell out to slow his dangerous receivers. Texas coach Tom Herman said roughly 70% of Hurts’ runs come on busted plays.
“They’ve got a few more quarterback designed runs with Jalen because he’s so big and strong,” Herman said. “I think probably just the fact that they’re running the football (effectively), and he’s running it every time I look up, and it feels like he’s running for 100 yards a game.”
Hurts’ size – he’s 6-foot-2 and weighs 218 pounds – makes him especially dangerous in the red zone. He has seven rushing touchdowns this season.
“It’s an added weapon,’” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said. “It’s just different with the guy that you have back there. But certainly, he provides some opportunities down there that are in some ways different than what we’ve had. Just feel like it’s just another bullet that you can fire at them that you maybe not always had. It’s been good here for us so far.”
Ehlinger could increase his visibility significantly with a win and a strong performance. He ranks 14th nationally in passer efficiency and is tied for fifth in touchdown passes with 17. The burly 6-foot-3, 230-pounder remains effective as a move-the-chains power runner with 236 yards and three touchdowns rushing.
Where Oklahoma has had three starting quarterbacks in three years, Ehlinger has spent three seasons in one system with one locker room, one position room and under one head coach.
That stability has helped Ehlinger blossom from an erratic passer into one that has Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s attention.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” Grinch said. “You’ve got quality in terms of the short, intermediate passing game … completion percentage and getting it into playmakers hands. And then also the ability to throw the ball up in jump-ball situations and situations where receivers are behind defensive backs. What you see is kind of spread the field that way, spread the field in the pass game and then obviously what that creates in the run game. It’s impressive.”
Ehlinger already ranks in the school’s top five for career total offense (7,502), most passing touchdowns (53) and most rushing touchdowns (21) and could pass Major Applewhite for No. 2 on the career passing yards list by season’s end. He has thrown 40 touchdowns and run for 19 more against just five interceptions over his last 18 games, leading Texas to a 14-4 record over that span.
“He made a commitment after his freshman year,” Herman said. “I’ve never seen a quarterback – and I’ve been coaching them for a long time – dramatically improve his release the way that Sam has on a year-to-year basis. He’s getting the ball out much quicker. He’s throwing from different arm angles. He’s more got velocity on the ball. It’s a testament to him and his commitment.”
AP Sports Writer Jim Vertuno in Austin, Texas contributed to this report.
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