WACO, Texas — How does a 21-year-old senior quarterback with an old soul, nearly 40 career starts and a college degree grow up any more than he already has?
Jalen Hurts showed a lot of people how.
Oklahoma’s quarterback came clean about a few things after two polar-opposite halves in the Sooners’ historic 34-31 comeback victory against Baylor on Saturday. The biggest admission was that his transfer from Alabama has never been a picnic.
It looked simple through seven games because Hurts and his teammates made it look that way. But after coming within a whisker of losing twice, then falling behind Baylor by 25 points with a little more than five minutes left in the first half, it became clear plugging a quarterback in for one collegiate season — even for Lincoln Riley — is no simple process.
“Coming in here, I always say, it's a challenge,” Hurts said afterward. “A challenge … having to put your full and complete trust in a whole entire new group, something you're not used to. But man, when we have that trust, when we have that belief in one another, when we're going out there and executing without any doubt, we're pretty good.”
And Hurts is still pretty good even after his first half against the Bears drew widespread criticism. He was 8-of-14 passing for 80 yards and an interception before two resilient final quarters, in which he completed 22 of 28 throws for 217 yards.
Hurts’ third turnover of the game, a fumble at the Baylor 2-yard yard line in the third quarter, just before he scored what would have been the tying touchdown, threatened to shatter OU’s momentum.
But Hurts picked himself back up, with help. The Sooners didn’t allow any second-half points, Baylor totaled just 69 yards in that span and turned the ball over twice to OU’s defense.
The trust developed between Hurts and others who engineered OU's heart-stopping comeback could wind up being more beneficial than if they’d blown the Bears out.
“I just want to say this,” Hurts said, opening his press conference with a statement, as he’s preferred to do lately, “I made this clear to my brothers, everybody in that locker room, you know, I'm virtually the new guy around here. I'm one of the newest members to the OU family. Boomer Sooner and all that. I mean, these are the same guys that accepted me the way that they did, voted me as captain, basically said 'we 'gon follow Jalen.' And that means more than you know, and that shows the respect they have for me and the love they have for me. And tonight, we were out there battling and, you know, their leader made some mistakes, and we all found ways to overcome it together. It shows the character we have, it shows the perseverance we have.
“You talk about me being the new guy, me being placed on a whole different team, a team that I prepared for last year in a bowl game. Talk about not knowing the identity of what we are … I think we are a football team that when we have the right focus, the right energy and enthusiasm all throughout the organization, I think [we’re] pretty good, pretty good.”
Hurts underwent a trust-fall game where he stumbled and found safety nets at every turn.
Without star receiver CeeDee Lamb in the lineup, OU freshmen receviers Theo Wease and Austin Stogner combined for three touchdown catches. Redshirt freshman Brayden Willis also caught one for a score. None of them had connected with Hurts in the end zone this season.
Tight end Lee Morris hadn’t caught more than two passes in a game this season before Saturday. Hurts found him seven times for 86 yards, with six completions in the second half.
OU wouldn’t have won otherwise. The offense fell badly out of harmony in the first half when Hurts turned the ball over twice and ran the ball on 12 of OU’s 37 plays for 2.2 yards per carry.
Riley then adjusted the game plan to incorporate short- and medium-range passes. Hurts’ longest completion was 28 yards to Charleston Rambo. The result could be more offensive balance moving forward.
“He had to trust those other guys certainly,” Riley said. “Sometimes playing without [Lamb] can almost make you see the whole thing a little bit better. He did, he hung in there. One bad decision in the throw game. Obviously the two fumbles. Other than that, the guy played pretty clean ball, he did.
“He settled in. I thought he handled some of our adjustments, which we had to make a lot of in this game. I thought he handled those in game as good as he had all year.”
Afterward, Hurts was blunt about his mistakes, as candid as the fans watching him during the first half — the ones who clamored for Riley to bench him in favor of backups Tanner Mordecai or Spencer Rattler. Hurts admitted OU’s 28-3 deficit in the second quarter and 31-10 hole at halftime was on his shoulders.
“Yeah, my ball security, it sucks. So I’ll try to fix it,” he said.
Hurts became the reason OU’s offense had one of its best halves this season — somehow with out Lamb — totaling 368 yards against the Bears, who came into the game with the Big 12’s No. 1 scoring defense.
“I know it was kind of hard on him, but he fought through it,” Rambo said. “He did more [in the second half] and it just opened up more for us to go down there and score. I'm just glad he got it right.”
Riley accepted Hurts into the program, in part, because of the experience he would bring. The other narrative revolved around how much room Hurts had to grow, and few were still discussing that as he coasted through OU’s early schedule.
Saturday was a complete reset.
“Just pretty awesome to see a kid that wants to win so bad, then has those turnovers, is a part of the reason that we're in the hole, then to come back and play like he did at the end of the half, the second half, what more can you say?” Riley wondered.
Hurts had a lot to say following the largest comeback in OU football history — much more than usual. In a chilly cinderblock-walled room deep inside McLane Stadium, he satisfied reporters’ curiosities more than at any point this season.
He was asked specifically about the freshmen receivers he connected with and what it meant to build rapport with them in a raucous environment.
“I’m glad everyone got to experience a game like this, kind of add to their resume,” Hurts said. “I think we had a lot of young guys, a lot of experienced guys who kind of grew up today.”
TCU at OU
When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
Place: Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium
Records: CFP No. 10/AP No. 8/Coaches No. 7 OU (9-1, 6-1 Big 12); TCU (5-5, 3-4)
Line: OU (-18.5)
Radio: KRXO-FM 107.7