Normally, Oklahoma’s defense would have some familiarity with a three-year starting quarterback for Oklahoma State.
But unique circumstances have kept Spencer Sanders from seeing the field much against the Sooners.
The redshirt junior missed the 2019 Bedlam game with an injury and he barely played in last season’s game after exiting with an injury in the first quarter. But heading into Saturday’s game, he’s healthy and the Sooners fully expect to get his best shot.
Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley spoke about the challenge of game planning for Sanders during his media availability on Tuesday.
“He’s always been a tremendous athlete,” Riley said. “ Everybody’s known that. But he’s obviously running well, in fact, with his legs and I do think he’s really improved in the throw game. Not that he was bad before, but he’s certainly done some nice things this year.”
Sanders is certainly a unique challenge for the Sooners.
The Cowboys’ offense is centered around the running game, and Sanders plays a huge role. He’s second on the team in rushing yards (417), rushing touchdowns (5) and rushing attempts (100). Despite missing a game earlier this season, he leads all Big 12 quarterbacks in rushing yards.
The Sooners have faced other dual-threat quarterbacks in the past, but for OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, Sanders presents a different kind of challenge.
“You see a guy that has a lot of game reps under his belt,” Grinch said, “a guy who has the get-out-of-jail free card with his ability to scramble and move in the pocket and extend plays to throw the ball downfield.
“It’s not that he’s just quick to take off and run but he also knows that he has that ability to hurt you that way.”
While Sanders is dangerous with his running ability, he’s struggled with passing the ball at times in his career. But he’s shown some improvements this season.
The raw numbers don’t jump off the page. He’s thrown 15 touchdowns and six interceptions, and he ranks 71st nationally in passing yards per game (199.7).
But he’s been much better in the Cowboys’ last five games. During that stretch, he’s thrown nine touchdowns and only one interception.
OU safety Pat Fields has seen that improvement from Sanders.
“[He can] make plays with his legs, whether that’s through taking off and scrambling, or whether that’s through extending plays, getting out of sacks, making crazy throws, accurate throws on the run,” Fields said. “In this day and age, it’s kind of difficult because before, you’d have a quarterback who just runs the ball or a traditional pocket passer.
“Now you see quarterbacks like Spencer Sanders who are great at doing both. Which is difficult to game plan against as a defense because we’ve got to make sure we get him on the ground, because he’s so great at extending plays and making plays with his legs.”
There’s a lot of pressure on Sanders, and the Cowboys, to win on Saturday. If they do, they’ll get their first win over Oklahoma since 2014, potentially spoil the Sooners’ chances at another Big 12 title and continue the Cowboys’ run to a College Football Playoff spot.
And they know this weekend could be the last Bedlam game for quite some time, and it sounds like Sanders is confident in the Cowboys’ chances to win.
“I already know what’s going to happen,” Sanders told reporters on Wednesday. “I’m gonna say we’re going to win because I have confidence in our team. But I can just already feel it. If we win, they’re going to bring up history, stats and all that. But honestly, I’m just going to smile.
“... It’s like leaving a bad taste in somebody’s mouth when they’re leaving. They’re going to have to deal with that. Your last game with me, you lost. So I don’t want to hear about no history, I don’t want to hear about stats. I want to hear about that game.”
Despite the challenge Sanders brings, the Sooners are confident in their chances, too.
“With a quarterback like him, the run game like they have, if you just play it honest I think we’ll be fine,” OU defensive tackle Isaiah Thomas said. “That all starts with us believing in our drive and trying not to be a hero because if you try to be a hero, you go to zero.
“But if you just do your job, you’ll end up making the plays and [be] where you want to be at.”