Why Spencer Sanders’ OSU departure paved the way for Ollie Gordon’s breakout

Why Spencer Sanders’ OSU departure paved the way for Ollie Gordon’s breakout

If Sanders had returned for a fifth season as the OSU quarterback, no way Mike Gundy’s staff would have discovered a superstar tailback in their midst.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Dec 26, 2023, 12:00pm CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Dec 26, 2023, 12:00pm CST

OSU football enjoyed an Ollie Jolly Christmas. About the time Rudolph (the reindeer, not Mason) was soaring above Nairobi (3 p.m. Sunday, Oklahoma time), Ollie Gordon delivered the gift that keeps on giving.

Gordon said he will return to Stillwater for the 2024 season, which is glad tidings of great joy, regardless of how the Cowboys fare Wednesday night in the Texas Bowl against Texas A&M.

Which makes now as good a time as any to credit a key contributor to the Hello, Ollie! story. 

Spencer Sanders.

That’s right. The bah-humbug quarterback who last December skipped out on OSU’s bowl game against Wisconsin and hit the transfer portal, landing at Ole Miss and leaving the 2023 Cowboys with a quarterback void.

But now we know Sanders is less Mister Grinch and more Frosty. The departure was not a sad story. Sanders’ melting away paved the way for Gordon’s ascent to stardom.

If Sanders had returned for a fifth season as the OSU quarterback, no way would Mike Gundy’s staff have discovered a superstar tailback in their midst.

“We knew Ollie was pretty good,” offensive coordinator Kasey Dunn. “I didn’t know how good.”

But we all found out after the Cowboys hit desperate times in September, including a gruesome loss to South Alabama.

OSU changed its offense in midstream. Scrapped Mike Gundy’s unique quarterback carousel and settled on veteran Alan Bowman. Began sending Gordon downhill instead of the sideways runs you get with the traditional zone-read and run-pass option schemes.

“We didn’t know really what we had with Ollie; what style of runner,” Gundy said. “Then we just said forget it. We’re putting the back back here. We got lucky.”

Gordon exploded. He became the most decorated tailback in college football in 2023. Rushed for 1,614 yards, won the Doak Walker Award and was a unanimous all-American. Gordon became OSU’s offensive identity and figures to be the same in 2024, no matter who the quarterback ends up being.

Never would have happened with Sanders around. OSU would have built its offense around Sanders, the 2021 all-Big 12 quarterback. Sanders, a solid but not great passer, was a tremendous playmaker with his running ability.

If Sanders had been around, seems almost impossible to envision the Cowboy offense stumbling out of the gate the way it did in 2023. 

But he wasn’t and it did. So Dunn and the offensive staff had to scramble to salvage the season.

“We made a good move … by changing what we were doing offensively, particularly in the running game and how we were doing it,” Gundy said. “And it fits his (Gordon’s)  style, so we guessed right.”

Gordon showed occasional explosiveness both a year ago and in September. But taking handoffs while stepping sideways for option plays does not play to Gordon’s strength.

“With Ollie, it’s almost like the old veer offense where a guy just runs straight ahead and you give it to him,” said Gundy, a veer quarterback at Midwest City High School.

But Gundy was an I-formation quarterback at OSU, with the likes of Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders lined up behind Gundy (and the fullback). Gordon clearly is more classic tailback, too, which these Cowboys often mimic with the pistol formation, the 21st-century version of the I, with Gordon lined up directly behind Bowman, sans fullback.

“Basically he’s better when he’s running this way,” Gundy said, pointing straight ahead. “He stops, he’s not very good.”

So the offensive adjustment set up Gordon for success. Running downhill. Make a cut. Keep going downhill.

Wouldn’t have happened in Sanders’ quarterback-centric offense. Sanders went from hero to villain with his dubious departure, leaving at odds with the coaching staff over allegations he was recruiting teammates to depart with him.

And Sanders went to irrelevancy at Ole Miss, where he backed up incumbent quarterback Jaxson Dart. 

It all was an unfortunate tale for a quarterback who did a lot for OSU football. And in the end, Sanders’ final contribution was paving the way for a new and even bigger hero.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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