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How Kyler vs. Tua became one of the best Heisman races ever

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The Heisman finalists and Playoff opponents are both amazing, in ways similar and not. Let’s take a close look at their games.

College football has never had a better quarterback duo in one season than Tua Tagovailoa and Heisman winner Kyler Murray.

Some of that is attributable to the sport being more pass-oriented now than ever before, but much of it’s because of their special talents. Baker Mayfield set the FBS passer efficiency rating record in 2016, then topped himself in 2017.

A narrow majority of Heisman voters decided Murray was the better player this season. But both of them have been astonishingly good.

By vote totals, it was one of the closest races ever. Tagovailoa got more votes than any runner-up ever has, his second-place finish infuriating his Bama teammates ahead of their meeting in the Orange Bowl.

Together, Kyler and Tua have played 26 games. Their teams have won 25, in no small part because they averaged double-digit yards per throw in 20. They’ve had 805 combined touches for 8,488 yards, accounting for 59 percent of the yardage and 55 percent of the touchdowns for the teams that rank No. 1 (OU) and No. 2 (Bama) in Offensive S&P+.

In the sprawling history of this game, we’ve never seen two QBs doing this type of work for teams this good at the same time.

Also add in Ohio State QB Dwayne Haskins, the distant third Heisman finalist, who might’ve just had the best passing season in Big Ten history.

There was more drama this year than any time since 2009, when Mark Ingram beat Toby Gerhart and Colt McCoy.

It’s hard to get past the fact that Tua’s done all this while playing in only four fourth quarters this season. Due to injury, we didn’t get to see what he could do against Georgia in crunch time, but there’s something to be said for the unquantifiable dominance of racking up all these stats while mostly playing 45 minutes per week.

Would voters prefer the guy with much bigger raw numbers and slightly better efficiency numbers, albeit in a high-octane conference? Or the guy who got pulled from most games in the third quarter because he was so dominant, generally doing it against better defenses? Either would have been a fair choice.

What made this Heisman race fun, in addition to its closeness, is the different way the two QBs have gone about their dominance.

Kyler and Tua are proof there’s more than one way to be a historically good dual-threat QB, at a time with more good ones than ever.

The starting point for both QBs is that they’re advanced passers.

Bama built Tua an entire offense around his left-handedness, with route concepts that break toward the left and give him ideal angles to launch brilliant throws.

The scheme’s smart and nicely customized, but it works because Tua has a golden arm. Most college QBs just can’t consistently execute throws like this ...

... or this ...

or this:

ESPN

What’s amazing is how often Tagovailoa does things like that. Other QBs at this level make those throws once or twice a season. Along with Haskins, Tua is the standard for a college quarterback as a downfield thrower.

Kyler’s not a slouch either. Oklahoma’s offense doesn’t call for as many deep shots as Bama’s, but when asked, MLB first-rounder Kyler can let it rip. Watch him deftly beat cover 3 for a touchdown to CeeDee Lamb in the Big 12 Championship:

The safety in the middle of the field stays shallow for a while — maybe to spy on Kyler, as no one’s running a route near him — and the QB just throws over him.

Kyler’s good on intermediate throws, waiting for openings and hitting them before they close.

That’s a common kind of throw for him this year.

Running is a huge part of both QBs’ games, but in different ways.

Not counting sacks, Murray’s carried 108 times for 9.1 yards per carry and 11 touchdowns. Tua’s carried just 37 times for 7.8.

Kyler is a video game character. He uses his preposterous agility to turn busted plays into huge gains, like this touchdown he scored at West Virginia:

Yes, he scored a touchdown on the same play as this:

Kyler’s legs also allow Lincoln Riley to dial up some cutting-edge stuff. This shotgun triple option he turned into a touchdown against UCLA is arguably the meanest play any team called all season, made meaner by Murray’s speed:

That play doesn’t work if your QB doesn’t have receiver (or center fielder) speed. The window closes too quickly. But when your QB runs like Kyler, it’s un-defendable. The Sooners tailor a lot of plays to his insane speed, like this draw that turned into a 75-yard touchdown (not a common series of words):

Another facet to Murray’s game is how he avoids taking clean shots, a testament to the kind of sliding he has to do as a baseball player.

Tua is a lot bigger than Kyler (218 pounds to 198) and doesn’t have his breakaway speed, but almost nobody does. Tagovailoa’s legs have been injured a handful of times, and Bama has showed little interest in calling designed run plays for him.

But he’s highly nimble and evasive in the pocket. He requires an extra defender in the box, a QB spy, or both, because he’s also a threat to do this on any given dropback:

In this way, Tua’s ability to run is a huge problem for any defense, and it shows up on almost every snap. Take this play against Arkansas in Week 6:

The Hogs have to be in a nickel against a three-receiver set. No linebacker anywhere can cover a Bama receiver.

But they also have to have numbers up front, because Tua’s a running threat. The Hogs keep all six of their front players squarely in the box, plus have that nickel cornerback inching toward it.

Across from those six defenders, Bama has six blockers, plus Tua and his RB.

Arkansas is outnumbered, and it’s even worse if the Tide choose not to block one box defender with a lineman, but to option read him instead. The Hogs know that, so they get creative and blitz a nickel cornerback, which takes away any Tua run option.

Let’s see how that goes:

Tua makes an easy throw right behind the nickel blitz to slot receiver Jerry Jeudy, who only has to outrun some poor safety to make a house call.

Even if Tua had just handed off to Josh Jacobs on this play, though, Bama would’ve had a huge running gain. As Tua made his give-or-keep read, two Bama offensive linemen were about to blow open a hole to his right:

The safety who could’ve filled that running lane was spinning into deep coverage, where he needed to be, because three DBs were in man coverage against way better players and one DB was blitzing.

Tua wasn’t running, but the credible threat of his legs made it even less possible for an overmatched defense to deal with his teammates. The result: a 60-yard TD.

Bama runs RPOs like that often, and coaches view man as the best way to defend RPOs, because it removes gray area in what defenders should do. But when you’re playing Alabama and Tua’s throwing, you have no chance in man coverage. You also have no chance out of it, because Bama will pick on you with a numbers edge. Have fun!

These plays are good illustrations of how Kyler’s and Tua’s mere presences make defense impossible when mixed with the right scheming. To the extent they are stylistically different, they create similar and devastating conflicts just by being themselves.

There was another unique thing about this Heisman race. In a selfish sense, it was ours, as college football people.

NFL folks haven’t really had their grubby paws into this deal yet, evaluating what these guys will or won’t be able to do at the next level, and for a couple different reasons.

Tua is still a year from being draft-eligible, which means fans and media have appreciated him for what he’s doing now instead of what he might do later.

Meanwhile, what Kyler could do in the NFL could be one of the greatest what-ifs we’ll ever have, because he’s got millions of baseball dollars lined up. (He hasn’t fully closed the door yet, though.)

And now, in the Orange Bowl, we get to watch them fight over something even bigger than the Heisman.