QB Jalen Hurts not cracking under pressure

BATON ROUGE — As Alabama’s routinely trenchant and ruthlessly monotonous regular season winds to its almost certain conclusion, the popular narrative for how Nick Saban can be stopped from his fifth national title in eight years already is written.

Between now and Jan. 9, you’ll hear again and again that Alabama’s freshman quarterback, Jalen Hurts, is just inexperienced and mistake-prone enough to represent a sliver of hope for Alabama’s potential playoff usurpers. You’ll hear theories about what might happen if Alabama ever gets backed into a corner where Hurts has to make pressure throws in the fourth quarter of a close game, the implication being that his inexperience will finally show up when it matters most.

But here’s some advice to for Alabama’s future opponents counting on Hurts, a native of Channelview, Texas, to melt down under playoff pressure: Better find another plan.

With all due respect to Clemson, Michigan and Washington, Hurts will not face a more talent-laden defense in a more difficult environment than Saturday, when his sheer athleticism and speed took over a fourth quarter against LSU and produced a 10-0 victory at Tiger Stadium.

“I think he improves day by day,” Saban said late Saturday night after Hurts had run for 114 yards, including the game’s decisive touchdown with 13:08 remaining. “I think he wants to improve. I think he wants to do the right things. He has great poise. I don’t think the stage is too big for him at all.”

And at this point in the season, the last part is really all that matters.

For all the open receivers he’s missed or turnovers he’s committed, Saban placed his bets in September and watched them start to pay off against LSU, which had Hurts backed up into third-and-long twice in decisive moments of the fourth quarter.

The first time, he eluded defenders for a 21-yard touchdown on a called passing play. The second, he took a designed run around the right side for 23 yards, outsprinting a whole bunch of fast, NFL-bound guys to effectively put away the game.

“He stayed calm and he did what he had to do when it mattered the most,” tight end O.J. Howard said. “It was a tough environment for anybody, especially a true freshman, and he did a great job.”

While pundits debate whether this is the best defense ever played under Saban, it is not the story of why Alabama is 9-0 and expanding the gap between itself and the rest of the SEC to historic levels. What’s happened is that a program Saban built to minimize the impact of the quarterback and emphasize the skill players around him is now, in a strange way, more reliant on that position than ever.

In part because Hurts struggles to do it, and in part because he brings a completely different dimension than Jacob Coker and Blake Sims and AJ McCarron before him, the old Saban paradigm no longer applies.

This is an offense built for Hurts’ athleticism, not his polish, and the bad news for Alabama’s upcoming opponents is that his combination of instincts and speed will travel to Atlanta and Tampa just as well as they did to Baton Rouge.

“Look, there are things we need to do better at every position,” Saban said. “There are things we need to do better at the quarterback position. We made errors early in the game that were costly. and we made some plays in the end that his athleticism allowed him to make and I think as we grow with him we’re going to have to live with both. I like the second part better than the first, but he’s a great competitor and never loses his poise. But we need to do a better job of executing.”

There’s no doubt it gnaws at Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin that Calvin Ridley is mostly a spectator these days (he had just two catches against LSU and a shockingly low 44 on the season) or that Hurts will overthrow a deep ball into one-on-one coverage more often than he’ll put it on the money.

By the end, he had either run or thrown for 68% of Alabama’s total yardage.

“We’re so happy for him, and I think it says a lot for his confidence and our confidence in him,” left guard Ross Pierschbacher said. “There were some mistakes in the first half and for us to come back and keep fighting, it’s just awesome. It’s huge going ahead.”

And as scary as it might be for the rest of the SEC to think about dealing with him for two more years, if he’s already good enough to win a game like this he’s good enough to win a national title.

Any team in college football can be beaten, and Alabama certainly can, too. As overwhelming as this team seems right now, there will certainly be more tests to come.

But any opponent who thinks Hurts can't make the plays necessary to win a playoff game should pop in the tape of Saturday, marvel in his improvisational and athletic gifts and figure out something else.


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