Spencer Sanders is in search of an extra life.
Mike Gundy’s weekly viral moment leading into the Texas Tech game compared his young quarterback’s progression to the stages of the classic arcade game Donkey Kong.
“When you started on Donkey Kong, you could never get past the elevator level,” Gundy said Monday. “You had the barrels, then you had the structure and then the third level was the elevators. That third jump you had to make to get up and get over, it took you a while. But after you did it 50 or 60 times, you could make that jump and you were set.
“He’s on the barrels.”
But after Saturday’s contest in Lubbock,Texas, it looks like he may have been hit by a barrel while trying to make a jump on the first level.
The Denton, Texas, native struggled – sometimes with the pressure behind a still injured offensive line, sometimes of his own doing. And Oklahoma State, for a second-straight season is looking like an inconsistent team – able to compete against ranked opponents, while looking lost against mediocre competition.
In the first half, Sanders and the offense was mostly to blame.
The defense, despite often starting on its own side of the 50-yard line, held Texas Tech to just 20 points in the first two quarters while the Cowboy offense put them in those situations.
Sanders finished the game with five turnovers – three in the first half, including one of the very first drive of the game. He ended up with three interceptions – one of which was partially due to the Red Raider pressure hitting him as he was throwing – and two fumbles.
In a bit of foreshadowing, in fact, FS1 broadcaster Robert Smith – a former NFL running back – made a comment on the second play of the game of how Sanders needs to avoid running with the ball like it’s a loaf of bread. The very next play, he was stripped on a sack.
It’s easy to point out the turnovers, which he is now at nine through his first three Big 12 Conference games – and 11 for the season with at least two turnovers in the past four games.
But there were also other mental mistakes or miscues that crippled the Cowboys.
There were misfired passes, which was the reason for the final interception, as it was too high for the usually sure-handed Dillon Stoner who jumped high enough to tip it into the waiting arms of a defender behind him. There was also taking too long holding the ball when his offensive line was already struggling to keep him upright.
And then there was a late-game mistake that usually only seen at the high school level.
Instead of throwing the ball away while out of the pocket, he took a six-yard loss by willingly running out of bounds. It wasn’t just the yardage though – as he would pick up a first down on a fourth-and-16 scramble – but his decision to run out also allowed the clock to keep running in the final three minutes when every second was precious with the Cowboys down by 10 points.
Sanders is still very new to life in Division I football with just five starts under his belt. And the hope for the Cowboy coaching staff is that he will continue to grow and learn.
But the concern has to be, this poor attempt at a jump over a barrel was against a Texas Tech program that hasn’t had a winning record since 2015 – which who knows, maybe that changes under first-year head coach Matt Wells.
This was a team many believed the Cowboys could “pick their score” and coast back to Stillwater and into an open week on a high.
Instead, Oklahoma State will spend the next two weeks trying to get its starting quarterback to grow a little faster and prepare for an undefeated Baylor team in front of a crowd that will be large at first and dissolve at halftime – as is Oklahoma State’s homecoming tradition.
There is plenty to work on over the next 14 days, but it will all be for naught if the future of the program performs as he did Saturday. Oklahoma State can survive through a few poor decisions here and there from Sanders, but for now he needs to understand he needs to take care of the ball more and allow veterans like Chuba Hubbard and Tylan Wallace to be the game-changers.
Jason Elmquist is sports editor of The Stillwater News Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.