The PlayStation Fiesta Bowl will showcase two Top 10 teams with two Top 10 scoring defenses, but the deciding factor on New Year’s Day will likely come down to which quarterback outplays the other. There’s a reason it’s considered the most important position on the field.
In this pairing of passers, the juxtaposition in styles is stark with one QB’s strength being the other’s limitation — and vice versa.
Oklahoma State’s Spencer Sanders and Notre Dame’s Jack Coan operate on opposite ends of the quarterback spectrum, but the recipe for success for each this season has been the same. Manage the game, don’t try to do too much and lean on your defense. But on Saturday, it wouldn’t hurt for each to try to mimic the other just a little bit.
Before we get into that, let’s take a look at the numbers.
Sanders is a dynamic dual-threat playmaker with all the ability you could hope for. He’s got a cannon for an arm and the wheels to run away from first-level defenders. He’s also got a propensity to force the issue, which can lead to an excess of turnovers. His head coach nicknamed him the Tasmanian Devil for a reason. But you live with the bad in hopes that the good will outweigh it. It mostly has this season.
Coan, the former Wisconsin starter, is much more predictable, your prototypical game-manager. He won’t wow you with any one of his physical traits, but he rarely presses. He’s only thrown multiple picks one time in 32 career outings — and that two-INT game was three years ago. He may not win you many games, but he’s unlikely to lose you many either.
In Sanders’ last outing he threw a career-high four interceptions. Depending on who you go to for stats, Coan is indicted for either five or six all season.
Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman talked about some of his QB’s intangibles.
“He’s got that natural, just leadership, quarterback moxie about him that you like,” Freeman said. “That’s the one thing that I notice about Jack being around him, especially on the defensive side of the field, it’s just that he had that leadership capabilities that you look for in a quarterback and he makes good decisions. …
“That doesn’t mean he’s perfect, but if you have somebody that’s going to make [good decisions], a lot of times that means you’re going to take care of the football.”
But good decisions are harder to make when you’ve got big, fast men crashing the pocket and trying to put you on the turf. Oklahoma State leads the nation in sacks at 4.2 per game and Notre Dame ranks 103rd allowing 2.8. To make things even harder for Coan, he’ll be without backfield mate and Fighting Irish leading rusher Kyren Williams, who opted out of the bowl game.
Coan poses little threat to outrun Malcolm Rodriguez, but he’s able to move around a bit in the pocket. If he can extend a play or two — and make even more downfield — it would go a long toward Notre Dame’s cause. And depending on how well Sanders plays, it might be a requirement. But that’s not his strength.
Sanders was able to string together a five-game stretch in the middle of the season in which he threw nine touchdowns to just one interception. Leaning on his run game and an elite-level defense, Sanders was allowed to be a game-manager with a card up his sleeve. He just had to make enough of his signature eye-popping plays to keep a defense honest or, occasionally, break its back.
But after losing his starting center Danny Godlevske in mid-November, Sanders turned in a TD-to-INT ratio of 1:6 over his last two games in a win over Oklahoma and a loss to Baylor in the Big 12 Championship. In the latter, he was without starting running back Jaylen Warren. The Cowboys offense was one-dimensional, predictable. Sanders was put in the position to try to do too much. That’s his weakness.
But despite setting a Big 12 Championship record in picks, when OSU needed Sanders to move the ball down the field for a chance to win, he showed up. He led a long, would-be, game-winning drive. OSU had first-and-goal from the 2-yard line. The Cowboys couldn’t punch it in. Now their in the Fiesta Bowl instead of the Cotton Bowl. It stings, but it could be worse.
The good news for the Cowboys is that, unlike ND, OSU will have its RB1. Warren is back and says he’s 100 percent. And Sanders still has his veteran defense to lean on.
When I look at the way these two teams match up based upon who’s projected to see the field, I think it’s more likely that Sanders is allowed to go back to playing the role of a game-manager with a card up his sleeve and that Coan is the one who might have to try to do too much. And that bodes well for Sanders and OSU.
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