Nebraska and Oklahoma have seen plenty of legendary players make signature moments in their historic rivalry. In 2021, the revival of one of college football’s most storied rivalries features some of college football’s brightest stars, even with the two programs recently trending in opposite directions.
No. 3 Oklahoma has been one of college football’s premier programs over the past few seasons. The Sooners have won six straight Big 12 championships, and have made the College Football Playoff four times since the tournament’s inception in 2014. Expectations remain high for the Sooners this season, with another trip to the playoff fresh in the minds of Sooner fans craving their program’s first playoff win.
Nebraska, meanwhile, has had four straight losing seasons, and has not made its conference championship game since 2012.
Oklahoma looked shaky in Week 1, squeaking past an upset-minded Tulane 40-35, but it took care of business in Week 2, routing Western Carolina 76-0.
Boasting talent-filled recruiting numbers every season, it should come as no surprise that the Sooners team is filled with exciting playmakers at almost every position. Here are some key names to watch for when the Huskers and Sooners take the field once again in Norman.
Spencer Rattler, QB:
Oklahoma’s strength over the past few seasons has undoubtedly been the quarterback. Of the Sooners’ last three starting quarterbacks, two went on to win the Heisman Trophy, while the other finished second in voting.
Following those enormous footsteps is sophomore Spencer Rattler, the consensus top quarterback recruit of the 2019 class.
Rattler got off to a slow start in his 2020 season, throwing three interceptions in an early loss to Kansas State and throwing a last-minute interception in a seven-point loss to Iowa State.
However, he rebounded by the season’s end, finishing with 3,031 yards and 28 touchdowns en route to Oklahoma’s sixth consecutive Big 12 championship.
As a passer, Rattler excels against the blitz. His 93.1 grade on throws outside the pocket in 2020, was the highest Pro Football Focus had ever measured for a college quarterback. The ability to throw on the run makes it difficult to slow down the Sooners’ passing game, even with an effective pass rush.
After facing pocket quarterbacks in Illinois sophomore Art Sitkowski and Buffalo senior Kyle Vantrease earlier in the season, Rattler’s multidimensional skill set represents something the Huskers have not seen yet this season.
Rattler got off to a slow start in the Sooners’ season opener against Tulane, throwing two interceptions and only one touchdown. Both interceptions came at inopportune times for Oklahoma, with the first happening on the game’s opening possession, putting the Sooners in an early hole. The other pick set Tulane up in Oklahoma territory, giving the Green Wave great field position which it used to cut the lead to two possessions in the fourth quarter.
He found his footing in the next game against Western Carolina, completing 20-of-26 passes for 243 yards and five touchdowns.
Rattler’s played down to his competition before, but he’s still a young quarterback with all the skills needed to make his mark in Oklahoma’s storied quarterback legacy. Forcing Rattler into turnovers has to be the top priority for the Husker defense, following the blueprint teams like Tulane and 2020 Kansas State used to slow him down.
Gabe Brkic, K:
When the Sooners don’t finish drives in a touchdown, they’re still likely to finish the drive with points. This is due to one of the country’s most dangerous weapons at kicker in redshirt junior Gabe Brkic.
Brkic made three field goals of over 50 yards in the Sooners’ opening win against Tulane. His performance tied an NCAA record for most field goals over 50-yards in a single game, and was named a Lou Groza Award Star of the Week. His 56-yard field goal was the longest field goal in Oklahoma history without the use of a tee.
In the Sooners’ victory over Tulane, Brkic’s deep field goals were crucial in giving Oklahoma the edge. He tied his personal best with another 56-yard field goal in the first quarter the following week against Western Carolina.
Brkic’s abilities help the Sooner offense become a threat to score shortly after crossing midfield.
“Basically, we just have to cross the 40-yard line and he can put it in there.” sophomore wide receiver Marvin Mims said after Oklahoma’s victory against Tulane.
Brkic is also as automatic as they come with extra points, going a perfect 112-for-112 in his college career.
After a week where Nebraska senior kicker Connor Culp went 0-for-3 in field goals, Oklahoma’s reliable field goal conversion could be a key factor in the outcome.
Mario Williams, WR:
With dynamic junior wide receiver Theo Wease missing the first half of the season with a lower-body injury, true freshman wide receiver Mario Williams has stepped up in a big way for the Sooners.
Williams leads Oklahoma in receptions, and is tied for the team lead with two receiving touchdowns.
In an offense that only has two scholarship running backs, Williams has been crucial in helping the Sooners gain yards on early downs. Head coach Lincoln Riley called Williams’ number frequently on first downs against Tulane, utilizing bubble screens and quick, short passes to set the offense up with a shorter second down.
Williams was utilized differently against Western Carolina, catching passes out of the slot and using his speed advantage to get open targets.
He represents one of Oklahoma’s many dynamic playmakers at wide receiver. Sophomore Marvin Mims was the Sooners’ top receiver in 2020, and has emerged as the top deep threat for Rattler this season. His 117 receiving yards against Tulane is the largest single-game total Oklahoma has had all year, and his 50-yard gain on a catch in traffic shows why he’s a matchup nightmare for most secondaries.
Also of note is sophomore wide receiver Jadon Haselwood, who found the end zone twice against Western Carolina. With Williams leading a talented group of receivers, the Husker secondary will have to be in prime form to prevent a big day in the passing game.
Isaiah Thomas, DL:
The team captain already has two sacks in the 2021 season, with one coming in each of the Sooners’ two games.
Thomas is also tied for second in the NCAA with two forced fumbles. He possesses a high motor, and never gives up on a play. On his forced fumble against Tulane, he shed his block and chased down the scrambling Tulane quarterback before expertly punching the ball out from behind with his left hand.
In 2020, Thomas led the team with 12 tackles for loss and two fumble recoveries. His breakout season earned him a spot on the All-Big 12 Second Team. From weeks 3-9 in 2020, he recorded at least a half of a sack in every game.
Facing a Nebraska offensive line that has struggled to show dominance, Thomas could be a huge force in disrupting the Husker offense on Saturday.