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Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray looks to shake off a cold and Alabama’s daunting defense

FILE - In this Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018 file photo, Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray (1) before the
Kyler Murray became the second consecutive Oklahoma quarterback to win the Heisman Trophy.
(Alonzo Adams / Associated Press)

Now we know what it takes to slow down the best player in college football.

Cough due to cold. Perhaps a touch of fever.

Kyler Murray clears his throat and says: “I was feeling really bad. I didn’t really know what it was.”

The Oklahoma quarterback, just back from a victory tour as the Heisman Trophy winner, felt sick enough this week that he skipped practice with his team.

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But Murray insists he will be ready for top-ranked Alabama and its formidable defense in a College Football Playoff semifinal at the Orange Bowl on Saturday. He had better be — the No. 4 Sooners will need him on the field.

“Throw the ball, run the ball, he can do a lot of amazing things,” Alabama linebacker Mack Wilson said. “We haven’t really played anyone like him.”

The numbers confirm it. Murray finished the regular season with a national-best 205.7 efficiency rating while completing 71% of his passes for 4,053 yards and 40 touchdowns.

The redshirt junior further distinguished himself from such rivals as Tua Tagovailoa of Alabama and Dwayne Haskins of Ohio State with a knack for escaping pressure and skittering downfield, rushing for 892 yards and 11 more scores.

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The blurry speed was a gift from childhood, but the arm took some working with his father, Kevin, who played quarterback for Texas A&M in the mid-1980s.

“It all started with my dad,” Murray said. “He always taught me that, to play quarterback, you have to be able to throw the ball and not be the stereotypical guy who has speed and just runs.”

The lesson has stuck with a 21-year-old who, despite his prodigious skills, came to stardom relatively late.

Following in his father’s footsteps, he first enrolled at Texas A&M in 2015, then transferred to Oklahoma even though it meant sitting behind Baker Mayfield for two seasons. Only after Mayfield won the Heisman last winter and departed for the NFL did Murray finally get his chance amid plenty of skepticism.

“Nobody expected any of this … except for me,” he said.

After a promising start in the season opener against Florida Atlantic, Murray had 300-yard games versus UCLA and Iowa before passing for 432 yards and six touchdowns against Baylor.

The rest of college football came to understand what his teammates already knew.

His touch was uncanny on deep throws and, when chased from the pocket, he could release the ball from almost any angle, including side-arm, without sacrificing accuracy.

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“You have to be prepared at any time,” receiver CeeDee Lamb said, recalling a pass from a recent game. “I couldn’t even see him but he could see me, so he let it fly.”

In a crucial late-season win against West Virginia, Murray threw for 364 yards and ran for 114. In the Big 12 Conference championship, he led the Sooners to a comeback victory over rival Texas with three touchdown passes.

That might have nudged him past Tagovailoa in the Heisman balloting.

“He’s very explosive,” the Alabama quarterback said. “I mean, with what he does in that offense, he does a tremendous job.”

The Sooners lead the NCAA with an average of 577.9 yards and 49.5 points a game. In the Orange Bowl, they have a chance to become the first Football Bowl Subdivision team to produce a 4,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard rushers and two 1,000-yard receivers.

But not everyone is convinced things will go smoothly at Hard Rock Stadium.

The Crimson Tide have allowed only 14.8 points a game while averaging 3.2 sacks, ranking in the top five in both categories. There are questions about whether Oklahoma can handle that caliber of defense after playing in the Big 12, where wild scoring has been the norm.

Murray also faces uncertainty about his future.

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As a star outfielder for the Sooners baseball team, he was selected ninth overall in the 2018 major league draft and signed with the Oakland Athletics for a reported $4.6 million.

At the Orange Bowl media day Thursday, reporters asked him — repeatedly — whether the Heisman had prompted any thoughts about entering the NFL draft instead.

“I’m not focused on that right now,” he said. “My main focus is Saturday, being ready to play this game.”

A moment later, however, he talked about pro football becoming more accepting of quarterbacks who, like him, don’t quite reach 6 feet tall. Murray is listed at 5-10 and 195 pounds.

“I’ve always felt I could play in the NFL,” he said, adding that “it’s never bad to have options.”

Success has created another sort of distraction in recent weeks, requiring him to crisscross the nation for award shows and television interviews. Murray suspects all that time on airplanes might have contributed to his falling ill.

Not that his coach is worried.

“He’s one of those guys, the moment is never too big for him,” Lincoln Riley said. “For all that he has gone through the last six months, it’s always been business as normal.”

Against the Crimson Tide, Murray will try to keep the Sooners on a fast track, believing a shootout is their best chance at an upset victory.

Which means the best player in the game needs to start feeling better.

Facing questions for nearly an hour Thursday, he tried to shrug off his illness but couldn’t help coughing occasionally.

When asked about preparing for Alabama, he said: “Just trying to be as healthy as possible.”

david.wharton@latimes.com

Follow @LAtimesWharton on Twitter


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