Outside the Pocket: 2/6 (1 INT)
Under Pressure: 6/9 (1 TD, 1 INT, plus 1 throwaway)
Red Zone: 2/2 (1 TD)
3rd/4th Down: 7/9 (1 TD, 1 INT, 6 conversions)
Forced Adjustments: 3
By the numbers, Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts is having the best passing season in college football history. Hurts' 219.7 passer rating is by far the best mark in college football history, topping Tua Tagovailoa's current 2019 rating of 204.9 and his full-season record of 199.4 from 2018. Hurts also may finish the season as the only player to ever crest 14 adjusted yards per attempt, as he currently sits at 14.8. Hurts gets a bump from playing in Lincoln Riley's offense against Big 12 defenses, but even with that adjustment in mind, this should still be considered one of the most impressive seasons the sport has ever seen.
That being said, Hurts nearly suffered the same fate against Iowa State that Baker Mayfield did two seasons ago. Mayfield could not crack Iowa State's defense and finished with one of his worst performances of the year, culminating in Oklahoma's only regular season loss of that season. While 10-plus yards per attempt and three touchdowns may say otherwise, Hurts also had one of his worst outings of the season against the Cyclones and probably deserved to lose this game.
Among other issues, Hurts fell victim to an increasingly popular defensive tactic in the following play: "creepers." In short, "creeper" concepts are pressure packages in which the defensive front will drop at least one line of scrimmage player back into coverage and replace them in the rush with second or third level defenders. The idea is to leave the quarterback uncertain about where pressure is coming from and bait them into throwing to an underneath area they believe will be uncovered.
That's exactly how Iowa State nearly intercept Hurts here. To the left of the formation, Iowa State are showing man coverage with no second-level defender in the area. The linebacker all the way over to the right hash has zero chance of making it over to the left side. The Cyclones also have the line of scrimmage loaded with six players, which leads Hurts to believe they will be sending a blitz. As such, Hurts takes the man coverage clue and blitz clue to throw how to the outside slant, as he should. However, Iowa State drop the edge player on the left side to play inside of the slot receiver, while the nickel defender plays him over the top and outside. The instant the nickel defender sees the slot cut inside, he knows he can work to help on the outside and instantly cuts the outside slant for what should have been a pick-six.
Trust me, Hurts is not the only quarterback getting beat with "creepers," especially not against the defensive minds who are best with them such as Dave Aranda (LSU) and Jon Heacock (Iowa State). That does not excuse Hurts from the mistake, though, and NFL coordinators will be just as tricky in their deployment of pressures/fronts. Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, for example, has regressed as a second-year player in part because defenses are stumping him with "creeper" packages.
Hurts' other potential interception may have been more concerning. Rather than being caught by an excellent defensive play call, Hurts just completely abandoned his throwing process to rush out a pass to a 12-yard out. Again, though, Hurts somehow went unpunished for the mistake.
This should be an interception, maybe even another hypothetical pick-six. With throws like this, the quarterback either has to get their front foot forward to be able to drive into the throw or open their hips wide enough to let them swing around entirely to allow for freer upper body movement. Unfortunately, Hurts makes the mistake of hitting the middle ground, which neither allows Hurts to drive into the throw or unlock his hips in any capacity. Hurts' rotation ends up getting cut short and his arm trails well behind the rest of his torso, leading to the ball coming out much weaker than it would have otherwise. The lack of zip leaves the ball to dip right into a defenders hands, which he somehow manages not to catch and instead tips up directly to Hurts' intended target. Not only did Hurts get bailed out by not having this intercepted, but he got rewarded with a first down despite the mishap. It's incredibly fortunate that this is the result of a process as wonky as this.
Finally, toward the end of the game, Hurts' recklessness caught up to him. In increasingly damning fashion, Hurts tossed an interception at about midfield with just under three minutes to go in the fourth quarter while Iowa State trailed by just seven points. The Cyclones scored a touchdown on the drive following the pick, but failed their two-point conversion for the potentially game-winning effort. Even when Hurts actually got intercepted, he still didn't get punished for it the way he should have.
More than anything, Hurts has to have better game sense here. Any decision that could hand Iowa State the ball in Oklahoma territory absolutely needs to be off the table, even if that means Hurts has to simply throw the ball away. The potential reward for a hero play in this spot is not worth the risk of forfeiting the ball in one's own territory. In a different reality, Iowa State end up scoring and converting the two-point play after this interception, and we remember it as one of Hurts' biggest blunders of the season. Instead, it will almost surely be forgotten or lumped in with the rest of his interceptions because Oklahoma finished with the win.
Where Hurts did impress as a passer in this game is in maintaining his mechanics while under pressure. During his time at Alabama, Hurts showed a tendency to freeze or tense up with bodies around him in the pocket, leading to a number of missed opportunities. Hurts has since cleaned up his overall mechanics at Oklahoma (despite the clip from earlier) and has especially improved under pressure. Even the numbers back of Hurts' play under pressure in this game as he was accurate on six-of-nine such passes.
Hurts still isn't squeaky clean here, but it's tough for anyone to be when they are under pressure. Before even getting to the throw, Hurts shows the awareness to slide in the pocket toward the side of his intended target and away from defenders. Hurts is still being pressured when he goes to throw, though, and needs to snap the ball out from somewhat of an awkward spot. Despite the crowded base, Hurts is able to draw power through his back leg and bring his arm forward in sync with his torso to whip the ball out at the top of his motion. He could still stand to get a bit more of a snap at the end of his release, but as far as process goes, Hurts showed the savvy to make a quick mechanical adjustment to hurry out an accurate pass.
Two of Hurts' five scores did not come through the air, though. Hurts, true to form, gashed Iowa State on the ground, mostly through a number of gap and read concepts that Lincoln Riley has turned to more often with a bigger quarterback behind center. Much of Oklahoma's option and QB run game with Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray was focused on getting them outside, but Hurts' bulky frame allows for a bit more power running with the quarterback.
Hurts is the perfect quarterback for the power read (a.k.a inverted veer). Cam Newton at Auburn under then-OC Gus Malzahn was the poster child of power read in modern college football. While Hurts is not quite that talented, his large frame and willingness to hit it upfield make him dangerous on this concept. Hurts is reading the defensive end to the side in which the fake is going, which would be the right side in this example. Hurts sees the defensive end screaming outside to get to the handoff player, so Hurts keeps it himself and pounds it in for a touchdown. Typically it's just a running back as the handoff player instead of a wide receiver coming in motion, but that little twist is just the kind of thing Riley likes to add to concepts like these. The more moving pieces, the better.
It's worth stressing that an on-film performance as shaky as this is not the norm for Oklahoma's third Heisman hopeful. Hurts was an underrated passer at Alabama during his sophomore and junior seasons, and has gotten leaps and bounds better in Norman. Hurts' accuracy, consistency, and play under pressure have all shown improvement in his final season of play. Between on-film progress and a stunning season in the stat sheet, being selected on Day 2 of the NFL Draft is now a likelihood that once felt like a pipe dream, at best.
Hurts should not be excused for "one bad game," either. For as far as Hurts has come since his freshman year in 2016, he is still an incomplete player whose deep accuracy is still middling and will need to add arm strength to all levels of the field to truly unlock his game. Hurts could also stand to further iron out his mechanics and improve his sense of how to manage the pocket, even if he's serviceable in both areas right now.
As such, Hurts occupies the third tier of quarterback prospects in this class. Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa make up one tier at the top, while Justin Herbert and Jake Fromm (for completely different reasons) occupy the next tier. Hurts is at the top of the following tier, alongside guys such as Jacob Eason, another prospect who is incomplete but shows enough for a franchise to buy in with a non-first round pick. Hurts should be able to further solidify his status as a top-100 pick through the offseason draft circuit, namely the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine.