This has not been your grandfather’s — or your father’s, for that matter — kind of Oklahoma football year.
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned what otherwise would have been a perfectly normal college football season completely on its ear. “Roster availability seems to change daily,” head coach Lincoln Riley said in his weekly press conference on Tuesday. There’s no question the coronavirus threat has dramatically changed weekday preparations and the way the Sooners conduct their football business this season.
But COVID is affecting every college program this season, not just Oklahoma.
The Sooners have bigger problems, though, than just the threat of COVID and all the preparations and protocols that go with it in protecting the health and safety of the players and staff.
Oklahoma has been its own worst enemy in losing back-to-back Big 12 games and two out of three to begin the season. Both losses were of the come-from-behind variety after the Sooners held fourth-quarter leads. The last time Oklahoma went 1-2 to start the season was in 2016, and the last time the Sooners lost as many as two conference games in the same season was 2014.
OU is not ranked this week in the Associated Press poll for the first time since September 2016. The Sooners began the 2020 season ranked No. 3 in the nation.
The quarterback is arguably the most important position on any football team, and when a team with the recent and historical success of an Oklahoma loses twice in three games, it’s not only breaking news but not uncommon to point the finger at the quarterback as the principal reason, or at least the place to start the problem-solving process.
The quarterback bar is set high at Oklahoma, especially after having two Heisman Trophy winners and a Heisman runner-up in its last three starters at the position. All three grew in development while at OU, but none of the three started their collegiate career or started their first game at Oklahoma. All three — Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts — had college game experience as a starting QB before transferring to Oklahoma.
This may be a down year for Oklahoma football, but don’t blame Spencer Rattler
Spencer Rattler, the fourth OU starting quarterback in as many seasons, was recruited by the Sooners as the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback nationally in the 2019 class. The expectations around him were sky high, but he spent the 2019 season as a backup to Jalen Hurts, which allowed him to acclimate to the college game while learning the Oklahoma offense. He did see action in three games, but only sparingly.
The redshirt freshman’s first college start came in this season in the season opener against Missouri, a 48-0 Sooner win. Rattler’s night was through after just two quarters, but he still managed to throw for 290 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions.
In losses to Kansas State and Iowa State the past two weeks, Rattler averaged 343.5 passing yards and three touchdowns, but also threw four interceptions. The young quarterback also appeared a little rattled (no pun intended) in the late going of both games as the Sooners attempted to make a comeback, something they have done with fairly high efficiency in recent past seasons.
In the fourth quarter of the K-State game, Rattler completed just 4 of 11 passes for 48 yards, including an interception in the Sooners’ final possession of the game. Last Saturday at Iowa State, he was 8 of 14 in passing for 71 yards over the final 15 minutes. With just one minute remaining in the contest and Oklahoma driving at the ISU 34-yard line, Rattler’s pass to the end zone was intercepted, ending the Sooner possession and sealing the Iowa State upset.
After the Kansas State loss, Riley had this to say about his young starting quarterback:
“This is just the normal evolution of a quarterback. This is what happens. Eight-five, 90 percent of what he did was really good. But a couple of mistakes really cost us — cost our offense, cost our team.”
The same would basically apply to his performance against Iowa State.
Now Rattler heads into his fourth collegiate start in perhaps the biggest game of the season, and practically every season, for the unranked Sooners: the annual Red River Showdown with Texas Rattler is the sixth freshman quarterback to start against Texas. The previous five, all redshirt freshmen, were 2-2-1 in their first Red River contests.
Riley believes Rattler is poised and confident enough, and he definitely possesses the talent, to handle all the emotion and adrenaline rush that comes with the OU-Texas rivalry. He was part of the game last season, although as a nonparticipant.
Outside of the interceptions, Rattler’s numbers through three games are on a par with the best college quarterbacks in the country this season. He leads the Big 12 and ranks ninth nationally in passing offense (325.7 yards per game) and passing efficiency rating (seventh nationally at 187.3). He is 10th nationally in total offense (331.0 ypg) and sixth in the country in completion percentage (73.4).
The bottom line here is that Rattler is probably the least of the Sooners’ early season problems.
Riley says there is plenty of blame to go around, and he includes himself and the assistant coaches in that assessment. There are issues in the running game, the experienced offensive line has struggled in the two losses and the young receiving corps, typically one of the strengths in the OU offensive performance has been average at best so far in 2020.
And you can’t talk about the need for improvement without pointing more than one finger at Oklahoma’s continuing problems on defense. Poor tackling, blown pass coverage leaving opposing receivers wide open for big plays downfield, and the mystifying inability to create takeaways to fuel offensive opportunities.
Rattler is clearly not the problem everyone seems to be trying to make him out to be, but he is not the sole solution to preventing Oklahoma from spinning its wheels in the mud in this unusual 2020 season, either.