Spencer Rattler wasn’t that bad.
But he will definitely need to be better.
It seems an alarm was sounded by the Oklahoma fan base over the weekend after Rattler’s performance against Nebraska.
The statistics weren’t bad, but were hardly impressive — 24-of-34, 214 yards passing, one touchdown passing, one touchdown rushing to go with 35 yards on the ground.
But Sooner Nation seemed largely dissatisfied with Rattler’s showing against the Cornhuskers.
Maybe it was his latest NIL deal — announced Friday on Twitter by an Oklahoma City auto dealership, one that gives Rattler access to a brand new muscle car or a pickup truck (his choice). Or the deal he recently signed with a national sporting goods chain. Or the ongoing Instagram links to his own branded merchandise.
The fan base seems be struggling to reconcile with the idea that their quarterback received two new vehicles literally on the eve of playing an old rival. The irony is there. This OU-Nebraska game was contrived to commemorate an athletic performance from 50 years ago. Rattler, on the other hand, represents the newest of new-age thinking for college athletes.
Like it or not, people, the NIL era has arrived, and big-time college quarterbacks are going to get paid.
The question is, does it diminish their performance? Can it become a distraction?
The argument can be made: if Oklahoma is going to fulfill its potential and compete for a national title this year, Rattler needs to be better than he was on Saturday.
“Honestly,” Rattler said, “throughout the day, I thought we weren’t that bad as it looked.”
Sure, the standards at Oklahoma are almost impossibly high. Jason White, Sam Bradford, Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and plenty of other elite quarterbacks made sure of that. If Rattler comes up short of those standards, Sooner fans will never truly warm to him — and they’ll cast blame on Rattler’s NIL deals.
Of course, many fans will say they would never begrudge Rattler for getting paid. But in the same breath, they’ll say he was awful against Nebraska.
He just wasn’t dominating.
“I thought he played pretty smart,” coach Lincoln Riley said. “I think he felt the game a little bit. There’s an art to playing quarterback because you have so much control of the game with your decision-making. All of these games unfold differently. You don’t always know how they’re going to play out.
“There’s executing your plays, but there’s also a feeling of how the game’s going and how the rest of the team is playing. I thought he had a good feel on that.”
Beyond statistics, Rattler delivered a dozen or so winning plays on Saturday.
- A third-and-11 sideline throw to Mike Woods on the opening touchdown drive,
- A patient, deft touch pass on a screen throw to Mario Williams later in the drive,
- Smoothly sidestepping a clean blitz to zip a short throw to Woods in the second quarter,
- His perfect throw to Marvin Mims on the double-pass from Williams, despite a defender in his face,
- The rollout away from pressure and perfect throw to Drake Stoops on second-and-27,
- Another rollout and perfect throw to Stoops to convert a third-and-5,
- His poised bootleg throw to Jeremiah Hall in on the goal line for the touchdown that made it 14-3,
- A clutch third-and-10 throw to Cody Jackson to start the fourth quarter,
- Another clutch throw on second-and-10 to Jadon Haselwood later in the drive,
- A third-and-7 conversion pass to Haselwood three players later,
- The mature decision in the red zone to pull it down and scramble instead of fitting a throw into tight coverage.
Rattler ran over a Nebraska defender on the sideline on that last one, stood over him for a second as the crowd exulted, and set up what became the clinching touchdown.
On the Sooners’ three touchdown drives, Rattler completed 17-of-20 passes for 165 yards.
No doubt, Rattler hasn’t been razor sharp this year. His two interceptions and handful of poor throws against Tulane were alarming. He had 10 incompletions on Saturday.
His slow start last year could be forgiven — first-year starter, COVID offseason, offensive linemen and receivers in and out of the lineup, one running back opted out, another suspended — but this year, he’s supposed to be in line for the award that goes to college football’s most outstanding player.
He hasn’t been that — not yet — but like he said, it hasn’t been as bad as it looks.
“I mean we’re 3-0,” Rattler said. “Not much complaining. But, everybody wants to be better. There’s never a point where we want to stop and stay here. We always want to climb up. Statistically-wise, fine. But in my head, I want to be way better.”
Through three games — what were supposed to be three easy games — Rattler is 31st in the nation in passer efficiency rating (158.6), 35th in passing yards (761), 61st in yards per attempt (7.69) and 89th in yards per completion (10.28).
Those aren’t Heisman numbers, to be sure. But Heisman winners are judged on an entire season, not just three games. Rattler has plenty of opportunity for improvement.
But again, it’s not been as bad as it looks. Rattler’s completion percentage (.747) ranks fifth nationally and leads the Big 12 Conference. He has seven TD passes, which ranks 17th nationally, and he’s 15th in total points responsible for (18.0 per game).
Rattler showed tremendous growth from the first half of 2020 to the second half. He threw game-clinching interceptions in two losses, and he was benched against Texas. But by the end of the season, he was MVP of the Cotton Bowl.
There’s no reason to think he can’t make similar progress this season — and he’s starting from a much better place.
“I think he has a good feel now for what we’re doing, the things that he needs to do, both when he's with us on the practice field and in the meeting room — and things he's got to do outside of here to get himself ready,” Riley said last week.
“He knows the routine. … Feel like he’s at a good point in the game plan earlier in the week than what he was last year. Last year, first one, it's just kind of a fight and struggle during the week. I think as we’ve learned about his strengths, weaknesses, what he likes, what he's comfortable with, we absolutely have evolved. And there's some things that I know right now that I didn't know last year at this time.”
After narrowly surviving Tulane in the season opener, Riley said Rattler had a chance to “reset.” Before the Western Carolina game, Riley said Rattler was still getting used to his role as a leader — a team captain.
And late in August training camp, Riley offered a brutally honest assessment (for Riley) of his quarterback’s focus.
“He’s still got to be committed and focused,” Riley said, “and he still has moments where he drifts away.”
That was just a few weeks after Rattler got back from Chicago, where he became the first college athlete to attend a memorabilia and collectors convention at which he sold autographs.
On Saturday, Riley was asked if Rattler was perhaps having trouble dealing with the pressure of being a Heisman favorite and a projected No. 1 draft pick and arguably college football’s most marketable NIL property.
“No,” Riley said. “… I hear your point on, you know, there's been some things that have changed. But if you think there hasn't been a pretty intense spotlight on the quarterback position every year that I've been here — I mean, just name the challenges. They're there.
“But I think Spencer's handled it well. He's practiced his tail off. He's getting better as a player. I don't think he would have handled today the same way a year ago, just with the way the game unfolded. So, playing quarterback’s about learning to win, and he's learning to win in different ways and getting better.”
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