How OU went deep again and bounced back in a Tulsa romp

How OU went deep again and bounced back in a Tulsa romp

Eli Lederman: Dillon Gabriel and the Sooners unleashed an aerial barrage in Saturday’s 66-17 win at Tulsa.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Sep 16, 2023, 9:46pm CDT

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Sep 16, 2023, 9:46pm CDT

TULSA — The first drive doesn’t have to have to define a football game yet there’s no question it can set a tone. 

Oklahoma began its win over SMU with a six-yard run, two incompletions, a loss of four yards, another short ground gain and a hurried incompletion on third-and-10. Dillon Gabriel went on to throw four touchdowns but finished 19-of-27 for 176 yards in an out of sync, out of rhythm passing performance. Only twice in the Brent Venables era had the Sooners recorded fewer passing yards in a game before that night.

Seven days later Saturday, Gabriel and OU unloaded early in its 66-17 win at Tulsa. 

Gabriel’s first throw went 55 yards downfield to Andrel Anthony. His second found Jalil Farooq for a 34-yard score, the first of Gabriel’s five touchdowns and the initial tremor in the aerial barrage the Sooners unleashed to improve to 3-0 on the turf of Chapman Stadium. 

“We’ve got to find different ways to win,” Venables said afterward. “Today those opportunities were there early and we capitalized on them.” 

The pair of sharp deep balls marked the beginning of a turnaround passing performance OU needed and ultimately delivered with the start of Big 12 play waiting next weekend in a Sept. 23 trip to Cincinnati.

The final stat book shows the Sooners tore apart the Golden Hurricane (1-2) for 476 yards, six touchdowns while completing 86% of their passes. Much of that production rested on the shoulders of Gabriel, who went 28-of-31 for 421 yards and a touchdown tally that fell one short of the career-high of six he set at Texas Tech last November.

Only once — in that 449-yard performance in Lubbock last fall — has Gabriel hit a higher yardage total since arriving in Norman. Never in his college career had he been more accurate than with the 90% completion percentage he turned in against Tulsa, a program he was 0-2 against at UCF. 

If not for a third-quarter interception, Gabriel would have exited without a blemish on one of the finest performances of his OU career.

“He was accurate,” said offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby. “I thought he made really good decisions. He did a really nice job of playing through all of his progressions and then taking the first one when he had the first one.”

It helped Gabriel and the Sooners’ passing attack that this occasion set up well for the deep ball.

A week ago, SMU sat in soft coverage in the secondary, keeping the top on to prevent the big plays Lebby’s offenses are designed to produce. A Tulsa defense that allowed 409 yards and three touchdowns to Washington’s Heisman Trophy contender Michael Pennix in Week 2 presented more opportunities; the kind of opportunities that allowed OU to spread the ball to 11 different pass catchers.

“We thought we had good matchups on the perimeter,” Lebby said. “We felt good about the pass-pro part of it. Thought we could sit in there and pitch and catch and make plays.”

Plays to make in the air came early and often. All together, OU passers accounted for 11 throws of 15 yards or more for 371 yards, including Farooq’s first-quarter score and the three touchdowns of 28, 42 and 50 yards second-year wide receiver Nic Anderson pulled in during  the most productive game of his OU career.

A bounce back day for the Sooners’ passing attack, the visit to Tulsa provided confidence boosters at the individual level, too. Perhaps no one benefited more than Farooq.

The third-year receiver who began the year slated to replace Marvin Mims hadn’t delivered Mims-like production in the early weeks of the season. No catches on two targets in the rout of Arkansas State and two catches for 36 yards and a score against SMU fall well short of the expectations for a No. 1 wide receiver at OU.

On Saturday, Farooq looked more like the playmaker who lit up opposing secondaries last fall. His early touchdown reception was the first of six catches in a 126-yard effort that marked a career-high on a day he tallied 231 all-purpose yards.

Gabriel remarked on Farooq’s short memory postgame. It allowed Farooq to put his fumble on the opening kick off behind him Saturday. It helped contextualize a quiet start in 2023 before Saturday’s eruption arrived, too.

“Experience is a lot,” Gabriel said, speaking on the early fumble. “It’s a big part of playing football. I feel like my freshman year if I had done that I would’ve been in my head the whole game. So me being an older guy and learning from that I know the game is not over just because of one mistake. You got to keep working.”

Lebby spoke afterward about finding different ways to win each week and taking advantage of openings presented by opposing defenses. Against Tulsa, those chances came through the air.

That won’t always be the case for OU, with remaining games against four teams that began Saturday ranked among the nation’s top-50 pass defenses. But Saturday afternoon offered a reminder of what these Sooners can do in the air.

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Eli Lederman reports on the University of Oklahoma for Sellout Crowd. He began his professional career covering the University of Missouri with the Columbia Missourian and later worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette before two years writing on the Sooners and Cowboys at the Tulsa World. Born and raised in Mamaroneck, New York, Lederman grew up a rabid consumer of the New York sports pages and an avid fan of the New York Mets. He entered sportswriting at 14 years old and later graduated from the University of Missouri. Away from the keyboard, he can usually be found exploring the Oklahoma City food scene or watching/playing fútbol (read: soccer). He can be reached at [email protected].

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