Sunday’s NFC championship game won’t be the first time that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts and San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy square off.
Hurts, in his second season starting for the Eagles, made his way to the University of Oklahoma for his final season of college football in 2019 after losing his starting job to Tua Tagovailoa at Alabama. And on a November afternoon in Norman, Oklahoma, Hurts and the Sooners found themselves fending off a ferocious comeback from Purdy and the Iowa State Cyclones.
Oklahoma had long dominated Iowa State, but the Cyclones had come to be a bit of a thorn in OU’s side once Matt Campbell took over the long-struggling program.
In 2017, ISU went into Norman and upset the then-No. 3 Sooners, 38-31, snapping an 18-game losing streak to Oklahoma that stretched back to 1990. A year later in Ames, Iowa State gave Oklahoma another battle but ended up losing, 37-27.
At that point, Purdy was the No. 3 quarterback on Iowa State’s depth chart. A few weeks later, though, injuries spurred Purdy — then just a true freshman — into action. He led ISU to a wild 48-42 win over Oklahoma State and never relinquished his starting role. Sound familiar?
Purdy was the 262nd and final pick in the 2022 NFL draft and spent most of the season as the 49ers’ third-stringer. But injuries to Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo forced Purdy into action, and the rookie has impressively been up to the task and has the 49ers a game away from the Super Bowl.
Hurts, Oklahoma jumped out to big halftime lead
Back in 2019, Purdy was in his second season as ISU’s starter while Oklahoma had added Hurts, who would go on to be the program’s third straight quarterback to finish as a Heisman Trophy finalist (Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray won the award, Hurts finished second).
When Hurts and Purdy first went toe-to-toe, Oklahoma was ranked No. 9 in the country but was coming off its first loss of the season, a 48-41 heartbreaker at Kansas State. Iowa State was 5-3 and putting up big numbers on offense with Purdy at quarterback and Breece Hall at running back.
But Oklahoma had an explosive offense of its own and jumped out to a big lead. In the first half, Hurts threw three touchdown passes — including two to CeeDee Lamb — and added two others on the ground.
Purdy had thrown two touchdown passes of his own, but Oklahoma held a 35-14 halftime lead and the game looked destined to turn into a rout.
But Purdy and the Cyclones had other ideas.
Purdy led epic Iowa State comeback
OU’s lead was 42-21 entering the fourth quarter, setting the stage for an incredible comeback — one that would come up just short.
The first play of the fourth quarter was Purdy’s third touchdown pass of the day, a 3-yard play-action connection with tight end Chase Allen to make it 42-28.
On the ensuing possession, Iowa State’s defense got the ball back by stripping Lamb, but Purdy and the offense could not capitalize as the Sooners got a fourth-and-goal stop with 7:37 to play.
Even after that stop, Purdy and the Cyclones kept their foot on the gas. The defense forced a quick punt and got the ISU offense back on the field. This time, after making a few nifty plays with his feet, Purdy found Sean Shaw Jr. for a 33-yard touchdown to cut Oklahoma’s lead to 42-35 with 3:35 to play.
Iowa State still had two timeouts remaining, so Hurts and the Oklahoma offense needed to pick up a few first downs to finally put the game to rest.
Instead, disaster struck as Hurts made his first major mistake of the game with 2:53 remaining. On third-and-7 from OU’s own 28, Hurts rolled right and inexplicably lobbed a pass into traffic as an Iowa State defender closed. Lawrence White picked off the pass and returned it to the Oklahoma 35. All of a sudden, Iowa State was in a tremendous position to tie the game — or even take the lead.
Whether it was with his arm or his legs, the Oklahoma defense had no answers for Purdy. Purdy reeled off a clutch 15-yard scramble on third-and-13 and later set up a goal-to-go situation with a precisely placed throw to Charlie Kolar.
The two would connect again a few plays later. This time, it was third-and-goal from the 13 when Purdy stood tall in the pocket with pressure in his face and found Kolar for a leaping touchdown with 24 seconds to play.
With the score now 42-41, Campbell and the Iowa State coaching staff had a decision to make. Should they kick the extra point and go to overtime or go for the win on the road?
They decided to go for the win. The ISU offense stayed on the field, but a comeback for the ages could not be completed.
Purdy dropped back to pass on the 2-point conversion attempt. He tried to fit the throw to La’Michael Pettway through a very tight window. The ball hit Pettway in the hands, but two OU defenders were in position and ripped the ball away.
The try was no good and Oklahoma somehow survived with a 42-41 win.
Hurts, Purdy to meet in Sunday's NFC championship
Purdy finished the day 19-of-30 for 282 yards and five touchdowns. He also rushed for 55 yards and a score in the loss. On the other side, Hurts completed 18-of-26 throws for 273 yards and three touchdowns and added 68 yards and two scores on the ground.
Oklahoma would go on to win the Big 12 title and clinch a berth in the College Football Playoff. The Sooners were smashed in the semifinals 63-28 by Joe Burrow and the LSU Tigers, who went on to win the national championship.
That was Hurts’ final college game and he was chosen in the second round by the Eagles in the 2020 NFL draft. Initially a backup to Carson Wentz, Hurts took over as the Eagles' starter in 2021 and led the team to the postseason. His play has ascended to a new level this season. The Eagles were the NFC's No. 1 seed with Hurts rising into the MVP conversation. And now, after a blowout victory over the New York Giants on Saturday, he has the Eagles on the verge of the Super Bowl.
Purdy would spend two more seasons as Iowa State’s starting quarterback. By the time he left Ames, he was the program’s all-time leader in attempts, completions, completion percentage, yards and touchdowns.
Despite a strong college career, he was not viewed as a surefire NFL prospect. The 49ers chose him with the literal last pick in the 2022 draft, No. 262 overall. Incredibly, Purdy will start the NFC championship game in Philadelphia only nine months later.
Will Purdy get the best of Hurts this time around?