‘Peak Dillon’: How Dillon Gabriel returned to deliver a fitting ending on Owen Field

‘Peak Dillon’: How Dillon Gabriel returned to deliver a fitting ending on Owen Field

Gabriel returned under center for the Sooners on Friday and produced a senior day performance to remember.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Nov 24, 2023, 7:55pm CST

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Nov 24, 2023, 7:55pm CST

NORMAN — Dillon Gabriel stepped off the turf at Owen Field, perhaps for the final time, at 3:13 p.m. Friday.

In the four hours before that, over the course of Oklahoma’s 69-45 win over TCU, the Sooners’ veteran quarterback had done it all.

Less than 24 hours after team medical staff cleared Gabriel from concussion protocol, he aired it out on the Horned Frogs early and often. When Gabriel had to, he ran, no moment more crucial than his third-quarter, 40-yard scamper just as the game was slipping from the Sooners’ grasp. In his 24th career start at OU, Gabriel was the engine yet again.

Few names drew louder ovations during the Sooners’ senior day ceremonies before kickoff.

Postgame, Gabriel remained on the field for more than 20 minutes, taking photos with every friend, family member and fan in his immediate orbit, doling out autographs until a team staffer finally nudged him down the tunnel and escorted the fifth-year passer to the locker room.

Everything Gabriel has been to the Sooners in his 23 months on campus was on display.

“This was peak Dillon,” said right guard McKade Mettauer. “Everything that he’s done…he showed everything he can do today.”

If a 114-point shootout was the Sooners’ fitting farewell to Big 12, Gabriel’s (likely) final home marked a proper finish for a central figure in coach Brent Venables’ two seasons.

Gabriel took the field for his 50th career game and completed 24 of his 38 passes for 400 yards with an interception and touchdown throws to Jayden Gibson, Brenen Thompson and Drake Stoops. He added his 12th rushing score of the season in the first quarter and gave the Sooners a desperately needed first down as right TCU (5-7, 3-6) was closing the gap.

By the time Gabriel left the field to a curtain call in the closing minutes, he’d guided OU to its second-highest point total in a Big 12 game and completed the latest in the series of high-volume performances that have become characteristic of his time in Norman.

“He was just fabulous, really, all day today,” Venables said.

Venables confirmed Friday that Gabriel had been in concussion protocol since exiting at halftime of a 31-24 win at BYU. Those protocols left Gabriel limited in the early part of the short week.

“It was tough,” Gabriel said. “There were some things that I had to work through. I just had to have ultimate trust in knowing myself and I felt really confident about it.”

Gabriel did not clear concussion protocol last fall in time to face Texas before the Sooners’ 49-0 defeat to the Longhorns. This time, clearance came Thursday, paving the way for Gabriel to return under center on senior day.

Afterward, Venables described the impact Gabriel has had on the program since arriving from UCF in January 2022. All of his words could have also described Gabriel’s performance against TCU.

“Stability. Consistency. Leadership,” Venables said. “And he’s made everyone around him better.”

The Sooners (10-2, 7-2 Big 12) intended to throw the ball on the Horned Frogs, regardless of who started at quarterback, offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby said afterward. Gabriel’s return fit well into those plans.

Among Gabriel’s first six completions were three connections of more than 50 yards, including his 59-yard touchdown throw to Jayden Gibson and the 53-yard score to Brenen Thompson. Gabriel completed 11 passes of 15 or more yards.

His 400 passing yards vaulted Gabriel beyond Luke Falk (Washington State), Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma) and Kellen Moore (Boise State) to seventh on the all-time passing list at 14,865 yards. Gabriel jumped former Sooners passer Landry Jones for eighth on the all-time passing touchdown list Friday, as well.

His 152 total career touchdowns rank fourth in NCAA history, the latest of the records Gabriel says “he won’t hang his hat on” as he closes a historic college career.

“I always say it, there’s no pitch without a catch and there’s no throw without a block,” he said. “So I think everyone’s had a hand in it and I’m very lucky to just have all those memories with a bunch of different guys.”

As crucial as any throw Friday was the play Gabriel made his feet late in the third quarter.

Gallery: OU’s 69-45 win over TCU in pictures

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Venables termed the defense OU played out of halftime as an “abomination to football.”In a matter of minutes, a 45-16 Sooners lead dwindled to 45-31 through back-to-back TCU scoring drives.

It was in that game state that nerves were simmering and the Sooners faced fourth-and-inches from their own 34-yard line with several minutes left in the third quarter. OU kept the offense, dialed up an option and watched Gabriel tear through TCU for a 40-yard gain.

His nine-yard touchdown connection to Stoops two plays later sparked a 24-point surge that allowed the Sooners to pull away.

“(He) made a nice play,” Lebby said. “Gave him some grief about not scoring, but it was timely, it was good.”

Gabriel declined to reveal his plans for 2024 on Friday. All indications, however, point to 2023 being his final season in college football.

After the final whistle, as the crowd of players on the field thinned, Gabriel remained, as if to take in every last moment in a stadium and a program that’s become a home in the span of two seasons.

“I really love this place,” he said. “I think when I needed it the most, it showed up. That’s people, that’s Norman, that’s Oklahoma as a whole. I learned a lot about myself. I kind of grew into who I wanted to become.”

Indeed, OU has been there for Gabriel, providing him the platform to a second act in a college career that began with starter’s duties in his freshman fall at UCF in 2019.

Just as often, it’s been Gabriel who has shown up when the Sooners needed him most, Friday afternoon the most recent example.

 

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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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