SAN ANTONIO – His first full college game done and his four turnovers an unavoidable factor in his first college loss, Jackson Arnold walked maybe 100 feet from the field into the concrete underbelly of the Alamodome late Thursday night. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t change an expression a psychologist couldn’t read.
Oklahoma’s freshman quarterback just kept walking, his helmet off and a white towel tightly around his neck, until he disappeared into the locker room next to center Troy Everett.
Because this is OU football and Arnold is a five-star talent, the tendency will be to dissect everything he did during this 38-24 Alamo Bowl defeat to Arizona. I’ve been familiar with OU fandom’s overreaction impulses since I was 8 years old and madmen wanted to burn Barry Switzer at the stake for losing a 28-game winning streak on a bad day against Kansas.
Some advice in this case: Don’t go there.
Realize that the slate for the 19-year-old Arnold remains as blank as the face he wore out of sight in San Antonio.
He can be the turnover dripper of Thursday’s first and fourth quarters, or the playmaker of the second and third, when he ripped off a stretch of 11-of-13 passing for 183 yards and 2 touchdowns to rally OU from a 13-0 deficit into a 24-13 lead.
Postgame comments reflected that double edge.
“Jackson had many things tonight that were just fantastic,” head coach Brent Venables said.
“Jackson is a baller,” defensive quarterback Danny Stutsman said. “He played his heart out.”
That was as noticeable as Arnold’s three interceptions, leading to 13 Arizona points, and his sack-fumble with 3:43 remaining, OU trailing 31-24 and losing possession on its 19-yard line.
When Venables pulled his quarterback aside at one point during the game, he conveyed two messages: “We’ve got your back,” and “Don’t throw late across the middle.”
“Those mistakes were on me,” Arnold said. “I’m going to take the full blame for that. I’ve gotta be better.”
That ownership was as encouraging as the kid’s 63-yard touchdown bomb to Brenen Thompson, a beauty that gave the Sooners a 21-13 lead two plays into the second half.
“When you’ve the right stuff it’s second nature,” Venables said of Arnold’s leadership qualities. “And he does.”
OU followers should love hearing that more than hate seeing those turnovers. They might consider that the hit that forced Arnold’s fumble was fierce, and all three of his interceptions were as much Arizona making quick, bright plays as they were a rookie quarterback doing things he shouldn’t.
The Wildcats are really, really good. We should have taken more stock in their six-game winning streak coming in and figured that was going to steepen Arnold’s task.
The fact he made that throw to Thompson, and that 31-yarder to Drake Stoops on third-and-10 to set up a third-quarter field goal, and that 10-yard second-quarter, go-ahead touchdown pass to Nic Anderson off his rollout and second read (Stoops was covered between Arnold and Anderson), against that opponent?
“He had some phenomenal moments,” Venables said, “and gave us a chance going into the fourth quarter to win.”
The most demanding OU fans will grant Arnold those moments.
They’ll also wish he’d have thrown a little faster to Stoops on all three interceptions, and worry that Alabama, LSU, Tennessee and Ole Miss will pounce on similar mistakes next fall.
Venables has been around this program long enough to know how fast the winds can change for the program’s starting quarterback.
“It’s always going to be extreme one way or the other,” he acknowledged after midnight Thursday. “I always preach to these guys, being inside out, whether they’re supporting you or throwing stones at you, you get into this arena, that’s what you sign up for.
“But at the same time, that’s not going to define us, good or bad.”
The Alamo Bowl won’t define Arnold, good or bad. How he builds from it the next two years as he grows into the position, with a fuller body of work than four quarters in San Antonio, will.
The Sooners have a pretty good idea of where he is headed.
“You’re offered a scholarship at Oklahoma, you must be pretty dang good,” Venables said. “When you’re the quarterback at the University of Oklahoma, something you do sign up for, you’re the face, in many ways, of the program.
“But I know we’ve got the right guy… Broad shoulders, level-headed, incredibly humble, tough on himself, demanding of himself. I don’t ever have to worry about him having success going to his head, and I certainly don’t worry about if he’s fragile.”
To that point, Arnold walked a straight line with a straight face after his circuitous starting debut.
“I know now there’s going to be some adversity,” Stutsman said, “but he needs to hang his head up higher than ever because Oklahoma has his back, that entire locker room with Jackson, and this changes nothing.”
It doesn’t. Arnold’s future is as wide open after the Alamo Bowl as it was before when we were all curious how he’d do.
Well, he played like a 19-year-old typically does in his first full game against a combative opponent in an intense environment. There is nothing wrong with that, and nothing ultimately telling.
So don’t pass judgment on either extreme. Don’t emerge from Arnold’s Alamo Bowl as the fragile one.