A star is born: Dillon Gabriel becomes a Red River hero

A star is born: Dillon Gabriel becomes a Red River hero

Berry Tramel: It's amazing what a guy prints in his brain and retains even after madness ensues, after producing a 75-yard touchdown drive for the ages.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Oct 7, 2023, 7:34pm CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Oct 7, 2023, 7:34pm CDT

(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))

DALLAS – Dillon Gabriel trotted onto the Cotton Bowl turf and looked at the time left on the scoreboard: 1:17. Funny what a guy prints in his brain and retains even after madness ensues. After producing a 75-yard touchdown drive for the ages. After throwing a three-yard TD pass that lifted Gabriel into Sooner lore. After beating Texas 34-30 Saturday in yet another epic Red River.

Maybe that kind of mental capacity is what allows a quarterback to produce in the first place.

Anyway, Gabriel trotted onto the field, and an hour after the game peeled back the curtain on the series of plays that turned him from little lefty to the stuff of legend.

I know we were getting it at the 25, something to start the drive out right, create a completion, and Drake (Stoops) caught it over the middle,” Gabriel said. “From there, you’re rolling, you kind of have that rhythm, that flow.”

Rhythm and flow had been gone from the Sooner offense since early in the third quarter. Four first downs and zero points over a span of 24 game minutes. Only Gabriel’s 44-yard quarterback draw had produced significant yardage. But Gabriel’s connection with Stoops on a crossing pattern jump-started the Sooners.

“Then, I believe, that throw to Jalil (Farooq) on the sideline, so he gets another chunk,” Gabriel said.

Yep. A 16-yard, tackle-breaking run on which Farooq got out of bounds at the Texas 49-yard line to stop the clock, with 52 seconds left.

“As time’s dwindling, as you get to midfield, just knowing we can get three (points) with a 20-yard gain, but also a chance to win the game, not taking a sack is in my mind, and find a way to either (get) a first down, touchdown or out of bounds.”

That’s a lot of mental pressure on a quarterback, but it comes with the territory. Same as playing quarterback at OU comes with a ton of baggage, because if you’re not Baker Mayfield or Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts or Caleb Williams, you’re in line to be replaced by the next great thing.

This could have been a defining moment for Gabriel the other way. That’s the way the world works.

“After that, did get flushed, found Drake in the middle again, he gets a good chunk,” Gabriel said.

Sure enough. Gabriel stepped away from Texas pressure but didn’t break to the outside. He dashed toward the line of scrimmage and hit Stoops for a 28-yard gain. Suddenly, Sooner Nation wasn’t thinking field goal. It was thinking touchdown.

“When you let a quarterback go forward in the pocket, it’s difficult,” said Texas coach Steve Sarkisian. “We didn’t build a wall inside. Gabriel took advantage of that and made crucial scrambles.”

Gabriel won this game with his legs as much as his arm. He scrambled and quarterbacked drawed his way to 113 rushing yards, to go with 285 passing yards, all without a turnover. He ran smart when toughness wasn’t required and tough when a drive or the game was on the line.

“Now, we’re in the plus-territory, but I also know the clock’s running, and, I think, uh, sorry, I’m kind of blanking,” Gabriel said.

Cut him some slack. A lot had happened in a little time, and there had been much celebrating since game’s end. Gabriel had donned a crimson lei and the namesake of the Golden Hat Trophy. He had hugged his mother and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby. He had thought of what this game meant, not so much to his Heisman Trophy chances, which suddenly have a pulse, but to his old friends and family back in Honolulu.

 

I asked Gabriel what the scene must have been like as he was leading that drive that will live forever in the hearts and minds of Sooners. And the quarterback, who on the Cotton Bowl turf had displayed nerves of steel and true grit, fought back tears as Farooq offered an arm around the shoulder.

I’ve got a lot of family back home that just loves me and is very supportive of my dreams and aspirations,” Gabriel said of Hawaii. “There are three things that I represent. That’s the name on the front (Sooners), the name on my back (Gabriel) and the state of Hawaii, just because that’s what made me.

“I hold it heavy because I love that place. I love everything it represents, and that’s love, humility and respect. And I’ll forever be that.”

With the clock still ticking, lobbed a pass toward the corner, which Anderson never reached because UT cornerback Terrance Brooks had shoved him out of bounds. A flag flew. Pass interference. OU had the ball at the 6-yard line.

Now we’re in the red zone … but we’re near the 30-second mark, so same thing: touchdown or out of bounds,” Gabriel said.

Gabriel dang near won it right then, with a quarterback draw — or maybe it was a scramble, who could remember to ask with everything to talk about this game — but the ‘Horns dragged him down at the 3-yard line.

Crazy how the game had flipped. The Sooners looked beat when Texas kicked the go-ahead field goal with 1:17 left. OU had been listless most of the fourth quarter. But momentum was back, and it was as crimson as the Hawaii lei that hung around Gabriel’s neck.

“Momentum is a delicate thing,” Sarkisian said. “They felt momentum swing quickly in their favor.”

Then came OU’s final snap, with the clocking ticking and hitting 20 seconds.

Anderson and tight end Austin Stogner collided in the end zone, an unplanned screen that proved fateful for the Sooners. In the chaos, Anderson came open in the back of the end zone.

“I saw the ball; that’s the last thing I remember,” said Anderson, whose game recall is not in Gabriel’s category. “Just seeing the fans and looking into their eyes, it was a crazy, electric moment. I’m glad they were pointing to me.”

The touchdown came because Gabriel played it cool.

Brent Venables calls his quarterback “fearless” and “the calmest guy I’ve ever been around at the quarterback position.”

That calm was needed on that final OU snap. The Texas pass rush was fierce, and Gabriel was forced to step up in the pocket. From the Cotton Bowl pressbox, it seemed as if throwing the ball into the OU band was the best move. But no Gabriel saw Anderson and got his pass off before the Longhorns landed.

“Just saw the corner clamp (come up) and then seen Nic in the back of the end zone,” Gabriel said. “That’s what we practice week in and week out. Just proud of everyone coming together, controlling the chaos and just dialing it in. That’s big-time football and something you dream of as a little kid.”

A star was born on that drive. A star and a legendary OU drive.

“Oh my,” said OU center Andrew Raym. “That was a movie scene. Everything clicked. Snaps, protection, routes. It hasn’t sunk in with me yet. It was an awesome drive.

“I love DG. I love him so much. I gotta go give him another hug. That boy played his butt off today.”

Everyone in crimson, at the Cotton Bowl and back in Oklahoma and halfway across the Pacific in his homeland of Hawaii, wanted to hug Gabriel, who answered the call of Red River pressure in the grandest way possible.

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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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