Editor’s Note: Sellout Crowd’s Coverage of the Oklahoma-Texas game in Dallas is Sponsored by Modelo – The Official Beer of Fans with the Fighting Spirit (https://www.modelousa.com)
NORMAN — Maybe it was shortsighted to think Dillon Gabriel couldn’t make a noticeable improvement.
Then again, he was entering his fifth college season. He was a known commodity. He was what he was.
Until he wasn’t.
The OU quarterback is better. Way better. When he steps into the Cotton Bowl on Saturday morning, most pundits, both professional and amateur, will consider him to be the second-best quarterback on the field. No doubt Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers is supremely talented.
But so is Gabriel.
“The amount of work that he puts in, nobody deserves it more than him in my eyes,” said Sooner receiver Drake Stoops, widely regarded as a player who works pretty hard himself. “I love that guy. I’m very excited for him, and I hope he just balls out and it opens everyone’s eyes.”
A big day in the Red River Rivalry would do just that. Legends are made inside the Cotton Bowl, and while he is measured by the ridiculously high standard set by Sooner signal callers who came before him — Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts, Caleb Williams — Gabriel could solidify a place in OU lore with a big game Saturday.
He might never have to buy another meal in Norman if he leads a Red River recovery from last year’s 49-0 thrashing.
And here’s the thing: he’s in a position to do just that.
He has thrown 15 touchdown passes and completed 75.2% of his pass attempts. Both marks are in the top five nationally. His 337.6 yards per game of total offense and his 318.6 yards per game of passing offense is in the top 10.
He ranks higher than Southern Cal’s Williams, Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. and Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders in completion percentage.
Gabriel has just as many passing touchdowns as Sanders and Oregon’s Bo Nix and more than Notre Dame’s Sam Hartman.
Gabriel is also tied for ninth nationally among quarterbacks with four rushing touchdowns.
Even though Gabriel was good last season, especially before he suffered a concussion against TCU that knocked him out of that game and the Texas game, he wasn’t this good. Wasn’t this complete. Wasn’t this spectacular.
“He’s playing good in lots of ways,” OU coach Brent Venables said. “He’s playing really good and leading with toughness. He’s in a much different place as a leader and his confidence.
“The way he has continued to develop, worked, led and played, I’m really, really proud of him.”
So, how did Gabriel make this jump?
Talk to those inside the OU program, and they acknowledge his individual dedication to improve himself during the winter, spring and summer. But they say the leap goes beyond what Gabriel did by himself to what he was able to do with his teammates — practice together in the summer.
A year ago, Gabriel didn’t run the offense much in the summer with the other skill-position players because they didn’t know the offense well enough. Offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby had just arrived in December, and despite devouring as much of the playbook as possible in the winter and spring, the receivers and tailbacks were still learning.
“It’s hard to go out and run plays if you haven’t learned them yet,” Stoops said. “You’re really just trying to learn them on paper at that point last year.”
Gabriel actually knew the offense, having played for Lebby at UCF, but he couldn’t be totally comfortable in the system until his teammates were.
“Being in our second year, we all understand it better, which allows us to play better for him and get open for him and be in better spots at the right times for him,” Stoops said. “And because he’s always been a very efficient, very accurate quarterback, I think just building that connection in year two has just been tremendous for all of us.”
Venables said, “All successful quarterbacks will be the first ones to tell you they’re successful because they’re surrounded by pretty good parts. That’s a good line. That’s a good running game. That’s quality receivers that get open and that can block in the run game. A defense that will complement them.
“You don’t have to say, ‘Oh, this week, I have to put on my Superman cape.’ That’s not the case.”
Still, Venables acknowledges the quarterback has to play well, making good decisions, taking care of the ball and executing within the system.
Right now, Gabriel is doing all of that — and more.
Even though he’s never played in the Red River Rivalry, never played in any game quite as big as this really, Gabriel will walk into the Cotton Bowl on Saturday knowing he’s playing better than he’s ever played before. He’s playing the best football of his life.
Folks on this side of the Red River aren’t the only ones who’ve noticed it.
“Dillon is a fantastic player,” Texas coach Steve Sarkisian said. “We know we’re gonna get the best version of him.”