The San Francisco 49ers will play at the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday for the right to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Much of the focus will be on the two young quarterbacks, Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts and San Francisco’s Brock Purdy, with everyone watching to see how they will handle the pressure of the moment.
Hurts and Purdy have been here before.
Not in the NFC championship game, but they have been in a college-football crucible, matching each other score for score on a big stage. The quarterbacks combined to throw and run for 11 touchdowns in 2019 when Hurts’ Oklahoma Sooners held off Purdy’s surging Iowa State Cyclones to secure a 42-41 victory. The game was decided when Purdy’s two-point conversion pass was intercepted with 24 seconds left.
For Purdy, the 49ers’ remarkable rookie, that loss at Oklahoma still stings. Yet it was one of many learning experiences he leans on as he prepares for the biggest game of his young career.
“In terms of the environment and everything, those kinds of games definitely helped,” he told reporters Wednesday. “Just a lot being on the line, focusing on the moment, focusing on what’s in front of you, focusing on the defense rather than getting caught up in the crowd and that kind of stuff. I played in a couple of those games in college, and it’s a great experience for me to go back to how I felt.”
That game still lives on YouTube, and the view counts have climbed steadily this week as football fans look to learn more about two of the NFL’s more intriguing newcomers.
Hurts, who played his first three seasons at Alabama before finishing his eligibility at Oklahoma, was a 2020 second-round pick of the Eagles and Wednesday was named one of five finalists for NFL most valuable player, joining Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Justin Jefferson and Patrick Mahomes. The Eagles quarterback threw for 3,701 yards this season with 22 touchdowns and six interceptions in 15 games as the Eagles went 14-1.
“It’s been fun to finally see him with the opportunity to have some continuity on offense,” USC’s Lincoln Riley, former coach at Oklahoma, said by phone Wednesday. “He hasn’t had that since high school. That was always kind of an exciting thing when you looked at his potential of what he could be when he finally got in a situation where there was some continuity from a coaching staff and a scheme point of view.”
Hurts offered a succinct summation of that 2019 game when asked Wednesday about it: “It was a good day. Glad we won.”
It was a big relief for the Sooners at the time, because they were coming off a loss at Kansas State and had not had back-to-back regular-season defeats since 1999.
“You have games like this,” Riley said at the time. “You don’t want them, especially when you have a chance to separate like we did. But if they happen, you’ve got to find a way to man up and find a way to win in the end.”
Hurts would enter the NFL draft the following spring and was the fifth quarterback off the board. Purdy had a longer wait. He was the ninth quarterback taken last spring and the final player drafted, earning the traditional moniker, “Mr. Irrelevant.”
Purdy made San Francisco’s roster as the third-string quarterback behind Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo, just as he was the third-stringer at Iowa State in 2018 before being promoted because of an injury and shaky play above him on the depth chart.
“I got to see him Week 1 when we played the Niners,” said former Iowa State tight end Chase Allen, now on the Chicago Bears practice squad. “He was just wearing sweats on the sideline, and that was a rainy, weird game. I got to talk to him in the middle of the field after the game. I was just asking him how things were and congratulating him on making the roster.
“He’s like, ‘Yeah, man, if I get my shot, I’ll be ready.’ And sure enough, that time came.”
After injuries sidelined Lance and Garoppolo, Purdy was promoted to the starting lineup and Niners Nation held its collective breath. The team has not lost with him at quarterback, closing the regular season with five victories and winning two playoff games. In all, the 49ers have won 12 in a row, their longest winning streak since 1984.
Purdy’s college teammates process that head-spinning information with a shrug.
“He’s an absolute warrior and a fighter to the very end,” said Charlie Kolar, a former Iowa State tight end who plays for the Baltimore Ravens. “If I can look at Brock now and compare it to what he was like in college, I’ve seen all the crazy scrambles and quick reads, the good throws and good runs. You know what I’m most jealous of?” — with a laugh — “Now he throws the ball away. I never saw that in college.”
Kolar caught the final touchdown in that game at Oklahoma — Purdy threw five of them — and was wide open on the goal line for the conversion, but Purdy threw elsewhere with a blitzing defender bearing down on him.
Everywhere you looked in that game, there was a future NFL player, including Oklahoma receiver CeeDee Lamb (Dallas), running back Rhamondre Stevenson (New England) and linebacker Kenneth Murray (Chargers), and Iowa State running back Breece Hall (New York Jets).
With his boyish looks and unremarkable stature, the 6-foot-1 Purdy doesn’t look the part of a budding star quarterback. He looks more like a next-generation Drew Brees than an Allen or Justin Herbert.
“Purdy is a little different because he always had guts and stones, onions, all of those things,” said former NFL quarterback Brock Huard, who broadcast the Cyclones-Sooners game for Fox. “But you see him in person and you’re like, ‘Ah, small hands, short arms, I don’t know if you’re going to be able to see and function at the next level.’
“And boy, both he and Jalen have been added to the list of why projecting NFL QBs is such a difficult job. It’s not only a crapshoot, but at times it feels like an impossible task.”
There was no shortage of believers at Iowa State.
“That game really epitomized the way a lot of Iowa State fans felt about Brock Purdy, and that was he always gave you a chance to win,” said play-by-play announcer John Walters, longtime voice of the Cyclones. “You were never out of the game with Brock Purdy as your quarterback.”
In that 2019 game, Hurts directed five touchdown drives in the first half to give a Sooners a 21-point lead and seemingly make the outcome a formality.
“I kind of felt like we’d separated,” Riley said.
The teams traded touchdowns in the third quarter, but it wasn’t until the fourth that the Cyclones really made a game of it.
“I remember the stadium really cleared out after they got up big,” Kolar said. “We started coming back and you could actually hear some of the Iowa State fans making some noise in the corner.”
These days, both quarterbacks are making some serious noise. Oddsmakers have Mahomes as the favorite to win MVP, but Hurts and Burrow are right behind him.
“I think [Hurts] should win it,” Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert said. “I think he’s been the biggest piece of what we’ve done this year. I think he’s been incredible all year. … I’m not even sure who even votes for all that, but hopefully he gets them all.”
Both quarterbacks are hoping to make new — and even more spectacular — memories in Sunday’s game.
Then again, that’s a big ask.
“I think Fox would hope for that same kind of 42-41 down to the wire in the NFC championship game,” Huard said. “They would sign up for that right now.”