How lessons Spencer Rattler learned from bench continue to help him and Sooners

Ryan Aber
Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler, a redshirt freshman, was an All Big 12 first-team pick and shared newcomer of the year honors with West Virginia senior linebacker Tony Fields II.

NORMAN, Okla. — Spencer Rattler didn’t expect things to be easy in his first season as OU’s starting quarterback.

But Rattler also didn’t anticipate much in the way of struggles.

“You’re a confident guy, you think there’s not going to be that many growing pains,” Rattler said. “Not having to go through all of that throughout high school and youth ball and all that stuff. But at this level, at this stage, you’ve got to be prepared.”

Rattler wasn’t prepared, though, for what happened Oct. 10 in the Red River Showdown.

In his first marquee rivalry game, with the Sooners 0-2 in Big 12 play and desperately needing a win, things turned disastrous with two first-half turnovers that led Lincoln Riley to bench Rattler for three series, replacing him with Tanner Mordecai.

Nearly three months later, Rattler’s brief benching at the Cotton Bowl — the stadium — is an asset for the Cotton Bowl — the game — where the No. 6 Sooners will take on No. 7 Florida at 7 p.m. Wednesday at AT&T Stadium.

“I’ve never been in that situation before,” Rattler said. “I think it was beneficial for me, kind of just opened my eyes a little bit and not get too comfortable where I’m at.

“I think Coach Riley did a good job with kind of giving me like a ‘timeout,’ I guess you could say. I wouldn’t call it a benching but just something to get a deep breath. I knew once I went back in, I was going to make plays and just play like I know how to.”

Rattler’s season — and the Sooners’ — can be marked in two parts.

First, there was before the “timeout,” as Rattler called it.

The redshirt freshman showed plenty of promise in those first three-and-a-half games — bullet passes thrown into tight windows, ability to keep plays alive with his feet, and mostly solid decision-making.

But then there were the head-scratching mistakes that cost OU plenty. In losses to Kansas State and Iowa State, he threw interceptions that ended any chance for a late Sooners comeback. Then there was the Texas game, where he threw an interception on the final play of the first quarter, then failed to protect the ball when he got hit on the next drive, causing a fumble.

The game went from a 10-0 Sooners lead to a 10-10 tie thanks to those turnovers.

Rattler’s completion percentage was actually better early in the season compared to after the benching — 71.9% to 65.6% — but he’s played better overall.

From the second half of the win over the Longhorns on, Rattler has 14 touchdowns to just two interceptions. By halftime of the Red River game, Rattler had 11 touchdowns and five interceptions.

“His leadership role just went out the roof, I believe,” running back Rhamondre Stevenson said of Rattler’s growth since early in the season. “And he just really honed down on what he needed to.

“He’ll tell you this every day — he needs to protect the ball, make smart decisions, and just play hard. And that’s what he does, week to week. And I respect him. He’s a great player and he’s going to get a lot better.”

For Rattler, the changes haven’t been dramatic, but they’ve led to a dramatic change in the results.

“I just knew I had to just step it up a little bit,” he said. “I could flip a switch and lock into a mode where I feel like I’m in control now with my decisions on the field, my play, my energy, how guys around me are bringing their energy and this and that. Just being a leader, being a confident quarterback, you have to have that mindset.

“You can’t let those little things shake you off, get you off path. You’ve still got to lead your guys. When it’s time to step up, a big-time player has got to step up in a big-time game.”

Rattler has done that, performing especially well in the second half and overtimes against Texas, in Bedlam and in the Big 12 Championship Game.

Now, he’ll get another chance in a big game in his first bowl start, taking the lesson that not every throw has to be a home run in Jerry World next week.

“Anytime I see a shot, I want to take it,” Rattler said. “With that growth, the growth factor through every game, you learn that the check down’s reliable and not throwing it 60 yards down the field every time is reliable. So if we can get a good nine, 10yards every throw I’m happy about it now. And then when those shots come open, I’ll definitely hit them.”