spencer-rattler-oklahoma-kansas-state-us.png
USATSI

MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Moments after his College Football Playoff-contending football factory stayed undefeated and his Heisman Trophy candidacy remained intact, Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler sprinted toward the South end zone at Bill Snyder Family Stadium to celebrate with a small section of Sooners fans.

Whether they greeted him with something more than a sideways glance was going to be news in itself.

With name, image and likeness rules already bringing college athletes closer to fans than ever before, Rattler saw perhaps the future of fan-player relationships last Saturday when he was booed last week (mostly by the student section) at home in a close win over West Virginia.

So, when he and three teammates sprinted to that end zone this week, there was no trepidation -- only smiles and high fives.

"That was the student section last week. They weren't at the game [Saturday]," Rattler said following No. 6 Oklahoma's 37-31 win over Kansas State. "Those were the real fans up there."

Fans frequently lack context, but in this case, they have lacked perspective along with some sanity. When the dust had settled over a satisfying victory that concluded an uncomfortable week, Rattler had missed on only 3 of 25 passes. He was throwing into tight windows, leading and throwing efficiently for an offense that saw the ball for only three possessions in the first half.

Counting the end of last week's last-second win over the Mountaineers, Rattler is suddenly the reason he is still chasing a Heisman and Oklahoma is in contention for that playoff berth. He completed 15 of his last 16 passes against the West Virginia, leading Oklahoma to scores on three of its last four possessions.

With K-State employing the same version of time-of-possession keep away, OU scored on its first five possessions Saturday. Add it up and Rattler has completed 37 of his last 41 passes while the offense he commands has scored on 10 of its last 12 possessions.

Boo that.

"I felt like [the booing] ignited all of us," Sooners running back Kennedy Brooks said. "[Rattler is] a reflection on us, and we're a reflection on him."

That's why Rattler and his teammates were all but embraced by the fans late Saturday afternoon. With a season-defining game against Texas coming up, this was some sort of breakthrough.

"He was playing to show those guys something today, to show those students something," said one of those OU fans, Justin Houtz from suburban Tulsa, Oklahoma. "They won't boo him next time we play in Norman."

It wasn't just that Rattler and the Sooners offense played arguably their best game of the season. It's that they had to play their best game of the season. OU as a whole has underachieved in 2021, allowing Tulane, Nebraska and West Virginia to stick around too long.

"He was awesome," Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said of his quarterback. "The kid's got a mental makeup to be a really good road quarterback. I think he embraces it. He has a real competitiveness about him."

Sensing an opening, K-State coach Chris Klieman pulled every rabbit out of his hat. The Wildcats converted four fourth downs. They returned a kickoff for a touchdown. Making his triumphant return from a knee injury, QB Skylar Thompson threw for 320 yards and three touchdowns.

There was an opening. Thompson and the Wildcats had beaten the Sooners in consecutive years. The last time that happened was the 1990s when Bill Snyder owned Oklahoma. The Wildcats attempted to own this game, holding the ball for 19 ½ minutes of the first half and trailing only 13-10.

"You knew it was going to be a battle," Riley said.

Especially with Texas coming up in the Red River Showdown. Especially with the Kansas State student section bearing down in Oklahoma's first road Big 12 game since leaving for the SEC. (Predictably, a "f--- OU" chant started midway through the third quarter.)

Especially with the OU student section from last week also chanting Caleb Williams' name. On Saturday, the five-star freshman did not distinguish himself by fumbling a snap on the Sooners' first drive, causing Oklahoma to settle for a field goal.

After all the strife, the Sooners (5-0) could perhaps be in the top four in both sets of college football rankings on Sunday. There were six losses by top-15 teams Saturday, including No. 3 Oregon, No. 8 Arkansas, No. 9 Notre Dame, No. 10 Florida, No. 12 Ole Miss and No. 15 Texas A&M. Only three of those were to fellow top-15 teams.

With a sputtering offense that had produced only 39 points in the prior two games, the Sooners -- used to boat-racing opponents -- have found themselves playing their reputation as much as the opponent.

"We've had maybe the greatest offensive run in college football years the last few years," said Riley, perhaps tired of hearing the criticism all season. "We have not played perfect all the time, but we've been pretty damn good."

Oklahoma's had to blow everyone out because that's what is expected of Riley, the spread mastermind. Except defenses have not only caught on to OU at times, they've caught on to modern offenses, period. There are better athletes on defenses, guys able to tackle in space. They're playing a two-deep zone. They're dropping seven and eight in coverage. They're daring offenses to throw over them.

Patience matters for guys like Riley who are used to ruling the college football world with their offense. Not counting a kneel-down at the end, the Sooners had only eight possessions. They scored on seven of them. For the second time this season, they did not punt. That's efficiency.

"It does make you appreciate the possessions," Riley said. "Sometimes, you get some of these games where both teams are going fast, hitting some big plays. There's so many possessions that you just devalue them. It's different in these because you take the field knowing every time, 'This is pretty big. We may not have many more.'"

Five games in, this might be a look at the true 2021 Oklahoma: a flawed football factory, not quite a powerhouse but not yet defeated, either.

At the end, Houtz -- the OU fan in the end zone -- considered that possibility while waiting to greet his victorious Sooners led by a newly varnished quarterback.

"Maybe," he said, "we've turned the corner."