Kyler Murray’s first throw this season was an 11-yard out to Marquise Brown. Florida Atlantic cornerback Chris Tooley played 5 yards off the blazing Oklahoma receiver and it made for a simple first down.
Murray’s second throw wasn’t quite as simple. Brown faked a slant before a sudden burst shot him past three flat-footed defenders into space. Murray floated a softer pass for 16 more yards and another first down.
Here were two plays that seemed like nothing more than a handy way to start a season at the time. We can read a lot more into them now.
We see Brown’s speed and precision. We see the chemistry and trust he shares with Murray. We see how Lincoln Riley puts that combination to use along with the two players’ physical gifts, and how the explosive package fires OU’s IndyCar offense.
We see how it has helped Murray win a Heisman Trophy, secure Brown a place alongside Murray as first team AP All-Americans, and blast the Sooners into a College Football Playoff semifinal against Alabama.
We see how Murray + Brown could help OU keep up with Tua Tagovailoa + Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy and the lethal Crimson Tide on Dec. 29, while making for an Orange Bowl classic.
And that’s why the most important room in Norman since the Selmon brothers’ dorm lodging is where trainers work on Brown’s tender left foot.
Riley hasn’t said what exactly Brown did to it during OU’s Big 12 Championship victory over Texas. We just know he missed the fourth quarter as a result and was last seen on crutches, hobbling around the Sooners’ postgame celebration in a protective boot.
Riley is hopeful Brown will be healed in time to play in Miami, but that’s about as far as he goes. Nick Saban already has a month to scheme against Riley’s fast break. Why make it any easier by publicly updating Brown’s status?
We’re left to wonder, then, and hope. Because this really can be a special game with all hands on deck, Brown’s two being most important.
With Brown on the field Saban must at least consider asking his safeties to help his corners cover him, either in deeper center field or shaded Brown’s direction. If that makes life more difficult for Brown, it should open space for CeeDee Lamb, Grant Calcaterra and other OU receivers. It could open space in the Sooners’ run game, though Alabama probably believes it can wall off Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks with its front six or seven.
Either way you want to draw attention. Nobody does that like Brown, with 14 catches covering 50 or more yards the past two seasons.
“The best deep threat, I believe, in college football,” Fox analyst Joel Klatt commented after Brown’s 11-yard opener against Florida Atlantic.
There is no “believe” to it. Not with Brown’s yardage totals matching his linemen’s jersey numbers.
He is Murray’s big-play target, and one of his must-have targets along with Lamb. Murray went to Brown on third down repeatedly in his first road start at Iowa State, then again during the Bedlam madness, and again as OU outscored West Virginia.
Murray targeted Brown on 21 third-down throws this season, one fewer than Lamb. And while it might seem reassuring that Lamb is fully fit for the Orange Bowl, imagine Saban being able to load up on him if Brown is a non-factor.
It might seem reassuring that Murray connected with Lamb, Calcaterrra, Lee Morris and Charleston Rambo in the fourth quarter of the Big 12 Championship. It’s just the CFP semifinal is a bigger stage, and Alabama is a nastier defensive animal.
I suppose it’s possible Alabama goes into some defensive shock against Riley, much as Georgia did in the first half of last year’s Rose Bowl. Maybe Murray channels Deshaun Watson from Clemson’s national championship tilts with Bama. Maybe the quarterback and play caller are all who matter here.
I don’t know, though. I’ll feel a lot better about OU’s chances, and the Orange Bowl’s potential, if the wide receiver is running routes and catching bombs again in Miami.