Early in the second quarter in Oklahoma’s Red River Rivalry showdown vs. Texas, something odd happened.
Following back-to-back turnovers by quarterback Spencer Rattler, an interception and a fumble, it was Tanner Mordecai coming out to lead the OU offense.
Rattler had to be hurt, right? This is Spencer Rattler. The five-star next in line. The heir apparent. The Heisman candidate without ever starting a game.
There’s no way he would just be benched by head coach Lincoln Riley?
Oh, guess so.
“There’s got to be a toughness and a mental toughness of the guy at that position for your team to need to have any of that,” Riley said. “Whether they are a big dude who tried to run guys over or even a small guy like Kyler that never got hit and slide every chance he got, there’s a mental toughness and a mindset and a competitiveness that you have to have. You have to handle situations like that where it doesn’t go your way.”
The situations, at least early in the season, really hadn’t gone Rattler’s way. Expected to be a redshirt freshman with the poise of Heisman winners before him like Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, it wasn’t always rosy for Rattler.
His final pass vs. Kansas State was an interception and saw OU blow two 21-point leads in the second half. His final pass at Iowa State was an interception and saw OU unable to answer the Cyclones after leading 30-23 in the fourth quarter.
Now against Texas, in his first RRS, Rattler had already experienced the ups and downs. The up of a beautiful touchdown pass to a wide open Marvin Mims, and the downs of two turnovers in a span of just minutes.
So, no, Rattler wasn’t hurt. He was doing arm exercises, but this was Riley giving his young signal-caller a breather. A chance to take a step back, breathe a sigh of relief and get back to work.
Seems obvious, in hindsight, how well this has worked. But how did Riley know for sure that Rattler was going to respond in a positive way and not mope around or get discouraged?
“I wasn’t worried about that. I feel like I know who he is,” Riley said. “That thought didn’t cross my mind at the time. And if he was to mope or not handle it the right way, he’s not the guy who should be our starting quarterback. That’s not a quality that would help us or help this team.”
Rattler, of course, would bounce back. It started in the second half and overtimes against Texas and has continued ever since.
Heading into Bedlam vs. Oklahoma State and looking at Rattler’s numbers since being sat down, he is 64 of 101 passing for 966 yards with seven touchdowns and just one interception. He has also rushed for two more scores.
Message delivered by Riley. More importantly, messaged received by Rattler.
“It ain’t high school no more,” Rattler said. “I can’t run around with the ball in one hand. It’s something I’ve been working on a lot. My goal is no more turnovers fumble-wise or interception-wise the rest of the year. That’s every quarterback’s goal, but I’ve gotta sharpen that up for sure.
“I feel like I’m in a good place. I feel comfortable out there. I feel good out there. It’s fun for me out there. I like making plays for my guys and my offense, so I have a ball out there.”
The Sooners have been rolling ever since, winners of four in a row. The phrase du jour of the season has been every game is a new experience for Rattler, and Saturday will fall into that category as well with his first Bedlam.
As he’s had to go through each experience, though, it feels like it’s been getting easier and that you’re not nearly as concerned about how he responds to the situation.
“It’s been awesome to see. I really wasn’t expecting anything less from him,” captain Creed Humphrey said. “He’s a hell of a player He has that attitude of being a winner. I wasn’t expecting anything less of him during that time. He did what I expected him to do.”
That’s why Rattler was brought to OU. That’s why Riley had been recruiting Rattler since the spring of his freshman high school season.
You have the belief you understand the makeup of someone’s character, but you never truly know until that moment hits.
Riley knows now.
“I think it’s definitely important. 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,” Riley said. “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.”
For Rattler, it’s been a balancing act. Because as much fun as it has been to see him make those highlight plays, it’s the routine plays and not forcing the action that has probably helped as much in the last month.
You can see him trusting in his receivers, trusting in himself and learning to take what’s there. Not everything needs to be a home run shot.
Watch him throw, though, hard to not allow him to just let it rip, sometimes.
“Seeing him grow is fun to watch because he’s out here making plays and it’s just those type of plays that you see from a young guy that makes you go, wow,” H-Back Jeremiah Hall said. “I’m glad to be one of his guys that he’s throwing the ball to. It makes being out there on the field that much more exciting and I look forward to the plays that he makes.”
As weird as it may sound, the best call of the season from Riley might have been giving Rattler a break that afternoon in Dallas. He hasn’t been the same player since, and that’s been a great thing for Rattler and for the Sooners.
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