Oklahoma has turned out an assembly line of successful quarterbacks under coach Lincoln Riley, with Heisman Trophy winners Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, last year’s Heisman runner-up Jalen Hurts and now freshman Spencer Rattler putting up huge numbers.
The running backs have been pretty good, too. Samaje Perine, Joe Mixon and Rodney Anderson are among the productive ballcarriers who have provided balance for the Sooners.
Things were different at the start of this season. Oklahoma’s ground game struggled in losses to Kansas State and Iowa State this season, putting extra pressure on Rattler. But a resurgence, led by T.J. Pledger, helped the Sooners (3-2, 2-2 Big 12) beat Texas and TCU. No. 24 Oklahoma will carry that momentum into Saturday’s game at Texas Tech (2-3, 1-3).
Pledger missed the first four games last season with a hand injury and got limited action when he returned. He got off to a slow start this season before rushing for 131 yards and two touchdowns against Texas and 122 yards and a score against TCU the past two games.
“He’s just kind of getting his feet underneath him,” Riley said. “He’s starting to understand it, kind of getting in a rhythm. I think he’s gaining confidence in himself, the line, trusting what he’s seeing. You just see steps each week. And he’s got a toughness and attitude to continue to work and get better.”
As a team, the Sooners have put up their best two rushing performances of the season back to back -- 208 yards against Texas and 166 yards against TCU. Their success could continue -- Texas Tech is allowing 179.3 yards rushing per game during league play. The Sooners are looking for more this week.
“I definitely think we have made some steps, improvement toward our run game, but we’re nowhere near where we want to be,” left tackle Erik Swenson said.
Oklahoma’s Marvin Mims has been a more productive receiver in the first five games of his freshman year than CeeDee Lamb was in his first five. Mims has 19 catches for 328 yards and six touchdowns. Lamb, who now plays for the Dallas Cowboys, had 17 catches for 307 yards and four scores in his first five games in 2017.
Lamb was bigger while Mims relies more on speed and quickness, but they have some similarities.
“They’re mentally ready to play at a young age as far as handling, not only picking up the offense but just handling all that comes along with playing football at a university like this,” Riley said. “There’s just a lot to it, and Marvin handles all business off the field, he’s very, very dependable even at a young age.”
Rattler’s arm has caught Texas Tech coach Matt Wells’ attention.
“It’s sick,” Wells said. “I mean, the guy flips his wrist and the ball flies. He’s very accurate. He can throw it on the run. He moves well in the pocket. He has got big-time arm talent.”
Rattler leads the conference in yards passing during league play and is second in touchdown passes. He completed 13 of 22 passes for 332 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in Oklahoma’s win over TCU last Saturday.
Texas Tech quarterback Henry Colombi led a 34-27 win over West Virginia in his first start.
Colombi transferred from Utah State, where he was the backup last season for first-round NFL draft pick Jordan Love. Alan Bowman started the season as Tech’s starter, but Colombi took over the job before the West Virginia game. He completed 22 of 28 passes for 169 yards and a touchdown and ran for 40 yards and another score against the Mountaineers. Though the numbers weren’t huge, he didn’t hurt the team with mistakes.
Wells said the challenge is to duplicate that success.
“Being the starting quarterback week two - new team. Do it again,” he said. “Stack success."
Texas Tech running backs SaRodorick Thompson and Xavier White were banged up against West Virginia with upper body injuries, and Wells isn’t sure they will play Saturday.
Thompson has rushed for 350 yards and five touchdowns in five games this season and averages 5.5 yards per carry. White has rushed for 148 yards and a score.
Oklahoma has made three straight College Football Playoff appearances, but the Sooners already have two losses this season.
Though much of the team’s top talent is young and many fans are pointing towards the future, Riley said he believes his team is capable of a strong finish this season.
“I’m definitely excited about the future, but the future’s in the future,” he said. “We’re locked in on this team and trying to go with in Lubbock. I think this team’s got a really good run left in ’em.”
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP.