By Alaa Abdeldaiem | @Abdeldaiem_Alaa
Sports Capital Journalism Program
LOS ANGELES –– It was time to make an appearance.
Baker Mayfield had missed all non-football activities with the Oklahoma Sooners over the last three days due to illness, and he was prepared to miss another.
But when the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback turned on the television in his hotel room on Saturday morning, he saw reporters swarming his coaches and teammates, repeating the same questions they had been asking since landing in California.
Where was Baker Mayfield? How was Mayfield feeling? Would he be at 100 percent on Monday? Would his sickness prevent him from playing?
He was the biggest headline in the buildup to the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual, his status dominating the conversation around his team’s big game. So as he called a driver from the team’s hotel and headed to the L.A. Hotel Downtown for the Sooners’ media day – nearly 30 minutes into the session — he knew it had to be done.
It was time to put the issue to rest.
“This whole thing isn’t about me,” Mayfield said. “University of Oklahoma is here to play a playoff game. It’s not about any sickness that I have. We’re here to win a game, and that’s what it needs to be about.”
Mayfield’s health is a large component in the team’s chances at a victory, however, and his coach and teammates know it.
The Austin, Texas, native has thrown at least three touchdown passes in each of his last six games and in ten of the last 13 outings, including a four-touchdown performance against TCU in the Big 12 Championship game.
Mayfield has 41 passing touchdowns and five interceptions this season and leads the country with his 203.8 pass efficiency rating. He also ranks first nationally in pass completion percentage (71.0), yards per pass attempt (11.76), and yards per completion (16.56).
He is the first player since Georgia’s Herschel Walker, who led the Bulldogs to the 1980 national championship, to finish in the top four in Heisman voting for three consecutive years.
Simply put, according to Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, Mayfield is every defensive coordinator’s nightmare.
“They’ve got a great quarterback that makes unbelievable plays,” Smart said. “Every game I got back in his history and watch, he has a ‘wow’ moment, a ‘wow’ play. The guy is a winner. He’s a gunslinger.”
When pressed for a diagnosis, Mayfield described his symptoms as flu-like. “Something bad,” he said. “You don’t want it.”
He said the symptoms started before he left for California, his condition worsening upon his arrival.
According to head coach Lincoln Riley, the Heisman Trophy winner has been limited in practice this week, his energy level “not normal for him right now.” Still, Riley stressed that Mayfield’s status for Monday’s game against Georgia was not in question.
“There’s nothing major as far as having to remove him or him just not physically being able to do anything,” Riley said. “He’ll be ready to play. Will he be at 100 percent physically? We’ll see. He’s not going to miss this one. We’re trying to push him to get better. Trying to just get over the hump.”
But it was clear that Mayfield’s recovery had not reached that point. He appeared tired, his voice hoarse and sometimes barely audible, raising the issue of how it would respond in the fourth quarter. The quarterback said his hotel room was cluttered with “lots of medicine, boxes of tea and honey and lemon,” and that he had switched to coffee with honey and lemon because he had gotten sick of drinking tea.
But his limitations haven’t been enough to worry his fellow teammates. Defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo said he has hardly noticed Mayfield had any.
“I can’t tell. He’s still talking crap to me,” Okoronkwo said, and laughed. “Baker is practicing just fine. He hasn’t missed a rep. I’m confident.”
Mayfield said he believes he’ll be at 100 percent on Monday, but if he isn’t, he sees no reason to doubt one of the most potent offenses in the country.
“There’s a reason we’re in the playoffs, and it’s not solely based on me,” Mayfield said. “They’re not going to miss a beat without me.”
Part of his confidence is in Kyler Murray. In the six games he’s played, the backup quarterback has completed 85.7 percent of his pass attempts (18 of 21) and has thrown three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Murray produced in a similar fashion when he played at Texas A&M in 2015, accounting for 1,021 yards of total offense and setting season highs in completions (22), attempts (39), and passing touchdowns (3) with a 191-yard passing performance against Western Carolina.
According to Riley, Murray’s preparation has been normal, largely due to his belief that Murray has always been prepared.
“I haven’t gone into a game where I felt like if the situation called for it that he couldn’t come in and play very well,” Riley said. “I feel the same way this week.”
Murray does, too. With a consistent, patient approach, the redshirt sophomore believes he could lead the team should his name be called.
“We’ve been on the same routine, the same practice plan,” Murray said. “I’m just being patient. I’ve been doing it all season, just preparing the same way, competing every day.”
When Mayfield’s featured seat in a corner of a hotel ballroom was empty, a small crowd of reporters gathered around Murray. One of them asked how Mayfield had been this week, considering the illness.
“Baker is Baker,” Murray said as Mayfield entered the room, took a seat, and reporters scrambled to take their places.
A statement was made. Mayfield will practice through illness. He’ll make it count. He’ll compete despite the circumstances, perform despite the setbacks and make an appearance the only way he knows how.
“When it comes down to it, [the illness] is not gonna alter my play, and that’s the most important thing,” Mayfield said. “I’m not dying. I’ll be playing. The best is yet to come.”