PROVO, Utah — The most important decision Jackson Arnold made in his most important afternoon to date as an Oklahoma quarterback came before the ball was even snapped.
Surrounded by mountains and standing at the BYU 38-yard line, Arnold and the Sooners stared down third-and-8 with 2:04 remaining Saturday afternoon, one last first down away from sealing a 31-24 win. Not even two hours earlier, an injury to Dillon Gabriel had shoved Arnold into the first significant action of his college football career on the weathered grass of Lavell Edwards Stadium.
The coveted freshman wouldn’t have expected to play in Provo. He prepared as though he might anyway. Arnold listened during the week when offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby discussed the looks the Cougars could throw at OU and which ones the Sooners needed to check out of.
One of those BYU setups presented itself to Arnold ahead of the critical third down, and he recognized it. So, the 19-year-old quarterback raised both arms and called an audible.
“We thought they were going to max out zero on us so I just checked out of it,” Arnold said.
The new play called for a slant. Jalil Farooq ran it, Arnold fired accurately for the first down and OU proceeded to run the clock out on its ninth victory of the season on the power of the eight-yard connection.
Precisely 1,201 miles away, Rodney Webb, Arnold’s former head coach at Guyer (Texas) High School, watched it all unfold on his phone from a high school football game in Allen, Texas, beaming with pride but not a shred of surprise.
“The moment is never too big for him,” Webb told Sellout Crowd Saturday afternoon. “It’s just not. And it never will be.”
Gallery: OU’s 31-24 win over BYU in pictures
The third-down audible and the rocket Arnold planted in Farooq arms became the signature moment on the day Arnold burned his redshirt and led the 14th-ranked Sooners to the narrow road win that kept OU’s Big 12 title game hopes afloat in the penultimate regular season game of his freshman season.
Arnold’s fifth appearance in 2023 was a relief call.
By halftime, Gabriel had completed 13 of his 21 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns. He’d also suffered the upper body injury — as Brent Venables described it — that would keep the veteran passer from even returning to the sideline for the remainder of the game, yanking Arnold off the bench and into a 17-17 game.
Arnold went five-for-nine with 33 yards through the air and added 24 more yards with his feet across the Sooners’ five offensive series after halftime. He completed his longest play of the day on a 16-yard shot to Farooq over the middle late in the third quarter. Farooq was on the receiving end of Arnold’s final and most critical throw, too.
“It was a great freaking catch,” Arnold said of the game-sealing, third-down conversion.
Arnold’s inclusion Saturday took him beyond the NCAA’s four-game redshirt threshold and dashed OU’s plans for maintaining a year of eligibility for its quarterback of the future.
Redshirt off the table, the Sooners may have to call on Arnold in six days.
Venables said Gabriel could be back under center “pretty quick” and suggested he could return for OU’s 11 a.m. Friday visit from TCU. In the event Gabriel isn’t back in Week 13, there’s a collective confidence at OU in the ever-confident Arnold, the first-year quarterback who will be ready to step in once again.
“There’s so many young guys that would’ve gotten into that situation and not done what he did on the last drive, making the plays with his feet and then the last throw and catch to win it,” Lebby said. “Man, (I’m) proud of him.”
Webb, now the head coach at Rockwall-Heath High School, keeps a close eye on Arnold’s college games, even with the knowledge this fall that his former quarterback isn’t likely to appear. While the Sooners visited BYU, Webb spent his Saturday in Allen, Texas, watching another school in the Rockwall school district compete in a state playoff game.
“I was just casually keeping an eye on the score and then I got a text that said Jackson is in,” he said.
Webb was also on the sideline on Dec. 22, 2019, the last time Arnold was a freshman replacing an established veteran in the middle of a high-stakes game. Eli Stowers’ ACL tear in the 2019 Texas 6A state title game threw Arnold into the fire in the final game of his freshman high school season.
The battering he received from the Austin Westlake defense that night was an ugly first step in one of the most accomplished careers in Texas high school football history. Four years later, Webb recognized the poise he saw when Gabriel’s name was called Saturday at BYU.
“His confidence permeates the people around him,” Webb said. “He’s just unflappable. There’s no doubt that his teammates had confidence in him because of being around him every single day.”
Confidence and trust built over his 11 months on campus were the foundations of Arnold’s first big OU performance on Saturday.
Teammates have raved about Arnold’s work ethic since arriving in Norman. They’ve told stories of his performances on the practice field. He’s caught attention with his game preparation.
Wide receiver Jayden Gibson, who caught his fourth touchdown of the year Saturday, noted the security in Arnold’s maturity. Right guard McKade Mettauer recalled the 50-yard touchdown Arnold threw at Tulsa as the moment he knew what the freshman quarterback could offer.
All of that contributed to the sense Venables had in the locker room when the Sooners made the switch at halftime.
“The moment wasn’t too big for him,” Venables said. “The players around him — they knew that, too.”
That assurance was there for Arnold when he led the offense onto the field after halftime. Nerves, entering the game in front of 63,714 fans on the BYU campus, arrived, too.
Arnold admitted to some early anxiety. He fumbled a snap on his second series. Later, he put too much juice on a pass that sailed beyond a wide-open Nic Anderson. For Arnold to settle, he needed a few drives and a game-shifting, 100-yard pick-six from Billy Bowman with 5:55 remaining in the third quarter.
“I didn’t even see it,” Arnold said of the play. “I was talking to coach Leb on the phone. But hearing everyone cheering, I looked up. Seeing that was just a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.”
Arnold’s shoulders looked plenty light in the closing minutes as he approached the line of scrimmage, eight yards and a first down from his first college victory. As Arnold scanned the field, signaled the audible and fired his dart to Farooq, he resembled nothing of a shaky freshman.
In Provo, Arnold discovered a first opportunity to live up to his overwhelming hype. In guiding OU to the 31-24 win, he showed an assuredness that will serve him and OU well beyond 2023.
“I think you’re hardwired that way,” Webb said. “Ever since I’ve known him, ever since I first started coaching him, he’s had that attribute.”