Barring any last-minute setbacks, Saturday’s showdown in Norman marks the first time in Bedlam football history that two quarterbacks named Spencer square off.
That’s an oddity, a coincidence not really indicative of anything — other than both Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler and Oklahoma State’s Spencer Sanders are terrific playmakers.
“Definitely the same tendencies,” Oklahoma State cornerback Rodarius Williams. “Some people may compare one of ‘em higher than the other one, but I feel like they’re the same. Both guys can make plays.”
There’s another similarity: both Spencers have had to overcome a significant challenge this season.
For Sanders, he was injured early in the season opener and missed two games. For Rattler, he was benched after two turnovers against the Sooners’ biggest rival.
Both guys have come back with a vengeance.
In his last 3 1/2 games, Rattler, a redshirt freshman and former 5-star prospect from Scottsdale, AZ, has completed 63.3 percent of his passes for 967 yards with seven touchdowns and one interception.
“He’s a good football player,” said OSU coach Mike Gundy. “He’s considerably different — from an outsider looking in — to now than he was six weeks ago. Obviously he has game experience and has come along. He’s a good football player and looks like he’s going to be what he was advertised to be coming out of high school.”
Sanders, a redshirt sophomore and a 2018 4-star prospect out of Denton, TX, has completed 67 percent of his passes for 743 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions in three games since returning from injury, including a career-high 400 yards in a loss to Texas.
While Rattler played in just three games and took a redshirt last season, Sanders played in 11 games and helped lead the Cowboys to an 8-5 record with 2,065 yards passing, 16 TDs and 11 INTs. As a redshirt freshman, he completed 62.8 percent of his passes. So far in 2020, he’s hitting at a 67.7-percent clip while remaining a threat in the run game.
“With a quarterback with the ability to beat you with his arm and his legs,” said OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, “it just adds a number of different layers to everything.”
Sanders is regarded as a more dangerous runner, largely because the Cowboys use him more in that capacity. Last season, Sanders ran for 628 yards and two TDs and averaged 4.5 yards per carry on 139 attempts. This year, he’s at 100 net yards on 48 rushes, or just 2.1 yards per carry — but he’s been no less elusive.
“We definitely needed the two weeks to prepare for him,” said OU linebacker Nik Bonitto, “because obviously going against a dual-threat quarterback, that’s a lot to game-plan for. So we’re preparing for him because he can also throw the ball as well. We just have to be ready for him keeping it on the ground or him pulling it back and trying to air it out.”
Rattler hasn’t been needed as a running threat — he has just 101 net yards on 50 carries — but he has scored three touchdowns and he seems to frustrate defenses with his escape ability and his ability to throw on the run.
“Obviously he’s got a strong arm,” Gundy said, “and he’s got some savvy. Can move around a little bit, make plays with his legs. So he’s come quite a ways in four or five weeks.”
That’s been the most impressive thing about Rattler: his bounce-back from being benched against Texas — not only in the three games since, but the way he righted himself in the second half and overtime against the Longhorns.
“If he was to mope or not handle it the right way, he’s not the guy who should be our starting quarterback,” Lincoln Riley said. “That’s not a quality that would help us or help this team. I think the starting quarterback has to have — not necessarily lowering your shoulder and running over guys — but there’s got to be a toughness and a mental toughness of the guy at that position.
“It’s not always easy to gauge, but it’s definitely important — how they handle adversity, how they handle tough situations, just their overall competitiveness. Are they somebody that, in that arena, wants the ball? Some guys do, some guys say they do. You can tell the difference. He’s a guy that doesn't shy away from it. I think he’ll be ready.”
“I’ve seen a lot of growth from him mentally, more so than anything,” said OU H-back Jeremiah Hall. “We all know that he can play. We all that he can throw the rock. But when it comes to situations where things don’t go our way, it’s making sure that he doesn’t feel all that pressure. Not everything’s his fault. He doesn’t have to make every single play by himself.
“When we were down at Texas, when he had to sit, beginning of the season when we took those two losses — when things don’t go our way, over the second half of the season, he’s really shown his ability to bounce back and continue to lead the team.”
Gundy has been similarly impressed with Sanders’ grit to fight through an injured thumb late last season (he returned in a limited role for the bowl game) and a high ankle sprain early this season to continue to lead the Cowboys.
“I feel really good about where Spencer is with his composure,” Gundy said. “He’s turned a 360 from where he was at last year. The positive about Spencer is that he’s ultra-competitive … he’s not scared. He’ll compete. He fights right to the end. We needed him to adjust his composure some when things didn’t go well.
“Quarterbacks have to have short-term memories. OK? It is what it is. Most of the time, things go well. Sometimes things don’t go so well. You’ve got to to get over it really quick and you have to be composed. And he’s much better this year than he was last year at this time.”
Hall conjured some recent Sooner royalty in considering Rattler’s emotional growth this season.
“Spencer's pretty level-headed,” Hall said. “He kind of reminds me of Kyler (Murray). Kyler was never too high or too low. And Spencer typically has that same mindset. Obviously, he celebrates the touchdowns and is happy when we make a play and things like that, but it’s never over the top and it’s never somewhat nervous or anything like that. He’s pretty right in the middle, and I think he does a good job of displaying confidence and continuing to make plays on the field for us.”
Asked if he thinks Rattler displays any qualities comparable to Murray, Baker Mayfield or Jalen Hurts — Riley’s three quarterbacks since he’s been at OU — Gundy resisted.
“I think it’s too early in his career to compare to Heisman Trophy winners,” Gundy said. “He’s mobile. He’s got a strong arm. I only know what I see on tape. I don’t know a lot about him personally yet compared to those other guys.”
There's another similarity the two Spencers share: though they were both on the team, neither one played in last year's game. So Saturday's 6:30 p.m. showdown will be the first taste of Bedlam for both.
As emotions will no doubt run high in this year’s game — OSU (14th) has a AP Top 25 higher ranking than OU (18th), but oddsmakers favor OU by a touchdown (the line opened at 10, went to 11 and then dropped) — Gundy said Sanders also has developed in that area.
“If Spencer gets to a point where he’s too involved emotionally or loses composure, then you put the other guy (freshman Shane Illingworth) in and let him play a little while until (Sanders) calms down,” Gundy said. “I don’t see that with him to this point. He’s been really consistent and developed and (is) doing much better.
“So you hope that you have a lot of good plays, but you’re gonna have some tough plays when you’re competing against good football teams. And he’s done a really good job this year staying composed, and I wouldn’t expect anything else from him.”
Riley said he hopes for the exact same thing out of Rattler.
“He’ll get into some new situations, some different situations here Saturday night,” Riley said, “and hopefully the experience he’s had through this year and some of the situations he’s already been in, he can draw back — which, I think for him, is to continue to trust doing his job, to trust his teammates and not make any more of it than what it is. He’s done a good job of that the last several weeks and we’ll need that to continue here in this last stretch.”
To get the latest OU posts as they happen, join the SI Sooners Community by clicking “Follow” at the top right corner of the page (mobile users can click the notifications bell icon), and follow SI Sooners on Twitter @All_Sooners.