BY RALPH D. RUSSO
NEW YORK (AP) — Kyler Murray waited three years to fulfill the five-star potential he brought to college football. With one shot to deliver, Murray replaced a Heisman Trophy winner by becoming a Heisman Trophy winner.
The Oklahoma quarterback won college football’s most prestigious individual award Saturday night, beating out Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and setting up a College Football Playoff matchup of Heisman winner versus runner-up.
“This is crazy,” Murray said in his acceptance speech. “This is an honor, something that I’ll never forget. Something that I’ll always cherish for the rest of my life.”
The fourth-ranked Sooners play the top-ranked Crimson Tide in the Orange Bowl semifinal Dec. 29 in the seventh bowl matchup of Heisman winner and runner-up, and first since second-place finisher Vince Young and Texas beat Reggie Bush and Southern California in the 2006 Rose Bowl.
This season, Murray stepped into the starting job at Oklahoma held by last year’s Heisman winner and first overall NFL draft pick, Baker Mayfield. Oklahoma is the first school with have Heisman-winning quarterbacks in consecutive seasons and the fifth overall with winners in back-to-back years. Mayfield was also a finalist in 2016.
“Luckily, we’ve been here three years in a row,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said. “We’re going to have to start paying taxes here.”
Unlike most seasons, the winner was no foregone conclusion, but Murray (517 first-place votes and 2,167 points) ended up with a fairly comfortable margin of 296 points over Tagovailoa. Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins, the other finalists, was a distant third with 783 points. Three more quarterbacks followed: Will Grier of West Virginia, Gardner Minshew II of Washington State and McKenzie Milton of Central Florida.
Murray appeared on 92 percent of the Heisman ballots, third most all time. Tagovailoa’s 1,871 points was the most for a runner-up in the 84-year history of the Heisman.
Murray, a pinpoint passer and explosive runner, surpassed the production of Mayfield. Murray has averaged 380 yards of offense per game and accounted for 51 touchdowns in leading the Sooners the Big 12 title and the playoff. Mayfield averaged 353 yards of offense and accounted for 49 touchdowns as Oklahoma won the conference and lost a playoff semifinal to Georgia.
“This didn’t just happen,” Murray said later during a news conference. “I’ve put so much time and effort into this game.”
Murray said he was in constant contact with Mayfield this week.
“It was just casual, bro-to-bro. He just told me to enjoy it. Have fun with it. It’s a once in a lifetime deal,” Murray said.
Tagovailoa was the Heisman front-runner for most of the season, but Murray surged late as the Sooners turned to him and their offense to bailout a leaky defense down the stretch. Meanwhile, Tagovailoa picked a bad time to have his worst game of the season, throwing two interceptions in the Southeastern Conference championship against Georgia and leaving early with a sprained ankle.
Murray’s first season as a starting quarterback in college is set up to also be his last. The junior has already signed a $4.66 million contract with the Oakland Athletic after he was selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft in June. Listed at 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds, Murray is small for an NFL quarterback but talented enough to be an intriguing prospect if he ever decided to give it a try.
For the next month, though, Murray is focused on capping his college career with a national championship. He took a circuitous route to get to a place most always expected him to be.
Playing for Texas powerhouse Allen High School, just outside of Dallas, Murray won three straight state championships at the state’s highest level and his team went 42-0 with him starting.
“Kyler’s journey, in particular, it’s kind of the stuff of legends,” Riley said. “But with all the high points there’s been a lot of tough moments.”
Murray signed with Texas A&M in 2015, but transferred after one tumultuous season.
At Oklahoma, the plan was sit the 2016 season to fulfil NCAA transfer rules and then step in for Mayfield in 2016. But Mayfield was granted an extra year of eligibility and returned for 2017, relegating Murray to backing up the best quarterback in the country.
This season, as the focal point of Riley’s creative offense, Murray developed into the dominant player he had seemed destined to become while at Allen.
“I trusted the process,” Murray said.
Murray fought back tears while thanking Riley during his speech.
“You pushed me harder than any coach ever has and I just want to say thank you for believing in me and allowing me to be the quarterback of this team. The leader of this team,” Murray said.
Murray is the fourth Oklahoma quarterback since 2003 to win the Heisman, joining Jason White, Sam Bradford and Mayfield, and the 16th quarterback overall to win the award in the last 19 years.
Oklahoma’s seventh Heisman matches Ohio State, Southern California and Notre Dame for the most by any school. That means another statue in Heisman Park in Norman, next to Memorial Stadium.
“I just hope they put the Bandana on me,” Murray said. “I hope they get the swag right.”
Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at https://podcastone.com/AP-Top-25-College-Football-Podcast