Dillon Gabriel, Texas win among OU’s best; Bedlam, double-penalty plays some of OU’s worst

Dillon Gabriel, Texas win among OU’s best; Bedlam, double-penalty plays some of OU’s worst

The Sooners are bound to look different from the way they’ve looked all season once they get to the Alamo Bowl. To that end, a regular-season-ending best and worst seems appropriate.

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

| Dec 8, 2023, 10:30am CST

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

Dec 8, 2023, 10:30am CST

NORMAN — Used to be, we’d wait until after the bowl games to do end-of-season reviews, but nowadays with lots of transfers, opt outs and coaching changes, bowls have started looking a lot more like a preview of next season as opposed to a finale of this season. 

So it will be with OU.

We don’t yet know exactly who will transfer or opt out, but the Sooners will have a different starting quarterback and offensive coordinator in the bowl. (I know Dillon Gabriel has said he might play in the bowl, but does anyone really think Brent Venables and Seth Littrell are going to pass up this opportunity to get Jackson Arnold snaps in an actual game that doesn’t actually hurt OU’s place in a conference race or a playoff chase?) The Sooners are bound to look different from the way they’ve looked all season once they get to the Alamo Bowl.

To that end, a regular-season-ending best and worst seems appropriate. One of these was done after pretty much every Sooner game, but this time around, it will evaluate the entire regular season.

Let’s go.

Best offensive player: A case could definitely be made for Drake Stoops. The sixth-year receiver was a first-team All-Big 12 selection who had 78 catches for 880 yards and 10 touchdowns, which tied for the Big 12 lead. But as good as Stoops was, Dillon Gabriel was even better. He completed nearly 70% of his passing attempts, throwing for 3,660 yards, 30 touchdowns and only six interceptions. What’s more, he was the Sooners’ third-leading rusher with a team-high 12 rushing touchdowns. We thought we saw Gabriel’s ceiling in 2022, but in 2023, he busted through and was way, way better.

Best defensive player: This is a hard decision, and unlike the past few seasons when the pickings were slim, it’s difficult because there are several candidates. Isaiah Coe. Ethan Downs. Woodi Washington. But Danny Stutsman stood out. The linebacker not only led the team in tackles (99) but also was the lynchpin of this defense. He led. He directed. He inspired. His worth may have been most evident when he was absent. Stutsman suffered an injury in the Kansas game, missed the second half in Lawrence, then missed all of the Oklahoma State game. OU lost both games, their only two of the season.

Best offensive newcomer: Had Andrel Anthony stayed healthy, the receiver transfer from Michigan might’ve been the runaway winner. But he was sidelined after only six games. Still, the Sooners got big-time production out of left tackle Walter Rouse. The Stanford transfer graded out as the best pass blocker on the team, according to Pro Football Focus. The evaluation service also determined he allowed only one sack and four hurries all season. 

Best defensive newcomer: As big a role as was played by transfer defensive linemen Rondell Bothroyd, Da’Jon Terry, Trace Ford and Jacob Lacey, none was as impactful as safety Peyton Bowen. He played over 300 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, and graded in the upper 70s in run defense (76.6), coverage (77.9) and overall defense (78.5). His tackling was graded at 85.1. Anything above 80 is considered excellent. Big-time stuff from the true freshman.

Best win: Texas. Easily Texas. Go beat a College Football Playoff team on a neutral field, and it’s a big-time win. But considering this is one of the premier rivalries in all of college football and the Sooners had lost 49-0 to the Longhorns a year ago makes it an even better win. This game featured a goal-line stand by the defense and a last-minute touchdown drive by the offense. Just a gem all the way around.

Worst loss: Losing to your in-state rival is never fun, but losing to a hot Oklahoma State team in Stillwater in a Bedlam with so much emotion? It’s understandable. Less understandable? How OU had the ball and the lead with less than 2 ½ minutes remaining and still lost at Kansas. That loss, frankly, should haunt the Sooners. Get a first down, run out the clock and win the game, and OU would’ve played in the Big 12 championship. And if they’d have beaten Texas there? Well, it would’ve been OU instead of Texas in the playoff.

Best play: Hard to top Dillon Gabriel’s touchdown pass to Nic Anderson with 15 seconds left against Texas. For starters, it was a great play design as tight end Austin Stogner provided a block to give Anderson just enough space in the back of the end zone. But then, there was Gabriel. He stood in the pocket, letting the play develop, and then as the pocket started collapsing around and especially in front of him, Gabriel jumped just a bit, as if to give himself a moment’s glimpse of Anderson, and delivered a strike of a pass to the back corner of the end zone. Just a total thing of beauty.

Worst play: The double-penalty play at Kansas that included an unsportsmanlike-conduct flag on the OU bench was teed up for this spot, but that double-penalty play with unsportsmanlike conduct on the head coach just a week later takes the cake. Some have argued Brent Venables wasn’t any farther on the field than other coaches have been. But here’s what we don’t know: what Venables said. There are a few topics and words that’ll get you penalized no matter where you’re standing. Regardless, the head coach can’t get a heat-of-the-moment penalty like that in a big rivalry game. Venables has to be better than that.

Best under-the-radar play: With all the attention on OU’s game-winning drive against Texas, it’s easy to forget Texas was driving for a touchdown before Jacob Lacey changed the Horns’ plans. On first down from the OU 35, Lacey got to Quinn Ewers, and after Texas managed only 3 yards on second down, Texas coach Steve Sarkisian decided getting into good field-goal position was paramount. A third-down run set up a Bert Auburn field goal, giving the ball back to OU with more than a minute left (the Sooners had no timeouts) and opening the door for OU’s late heroics.

Worst under-the-radar play: OU was gaining momentum in the third quarter of Bedlam. After taking a 21-17 lead, the Sooners got the ball back and were driving again. Push the lead to seven with a field goal or even double digits with a touchdown, and the Cowboys might not have been able to come back. But on a fourth-down pass, Brenen Thompson dropped a pass zipped to him beautifully by Dillon Gabriel. Snag the ball, and the rest of the game might’ve had a whole different tenor.

Best stat: Dillon Gabriel did something this season no other Sooner in the 129 years of OU football had ever done. Against West Virginia, the OU quarterback accounted for eight touchdowns. Five passing. Three rushing. That had never been done in a single game by any other Sooner. Not Baker Mayfield. Not Kyler Murray. Not Sam Bradford. Not Steve Owens. Not anyone.

Worst stat: The six turnovers the Sooners committed in their two losses. They had three at Kansas and three at OSU. In the other 10 games this season, OU had eight turnovers combined, an average of 0.8 turnovers a game. Turning the ball over so much more against the Jayhawks and Cowboys was extremely detrimental.

Best reason to feel good about OU: The defense got much better. Much, much better. After giving up 30.0 points and 461.0 yards a game last season, the Sooners only gave up 22.3 points and 390.2 yards this season. Here’s another measure: my buddy Berry Tramel does his efficiency ratings, figuring percentages based on how much your opponents score with the possessions they’re given. A year ago in the 10-team Big 12, OU ranked seventh at .378. This season in a 14-team league, the Sooners ranked fourth at .306.

Best reason to pack it in on the Sooners: The run game was a struggle throughout the year. Yes, Gavin Sawchuk got going late, and Dillon Gabriel was always capable. But even against so-so defenses, the Sooners never really imposed their will on the ground. They averaged 180.6 yards a game, seventh best in the Big 12.

Best non-game moment: The fighter-jet flyovers at Kansas. Yes, I’m a sucker for flyovers, but this was next level. After screaming across the length of the stadium at the end of the national anthem, the jets doubled back and flew over the stadium crosswise. It was unexpected and super cool.

Best celebration: Drake Stoops’ old-school spike after his third touchdown catch of the day against West Virginia. Yes, it drew a flag, but I love a good end zone celebration, even though we don’t see them much in college football. The choreographed ones often seen in the NFL can be fun, but give me a guy slamming a ball to the turf as hard as he can any day. That’s what Stoops did. It fit his old-school personality and style. Loved it.

Best interview: Those of us in the media found lots of good talkers among this bunch of Sooners. Dillon Gabriel. Drake Stoops. Jayden Gibson. McKade Mettauer. Ethan Downs. Peyton Bowen. But Walter Rouse stood above them all. The left tackle has a degree from Stanford, so that’s a good start, but more than that, he’s just a wildly interesting dude who genuinely seemed to enjoy talking to reporters.

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Jenni Carlson is a columnist with the Sellout Crowd network. Follow her on Twitter at @JenniCarlson_OK. Email [email protected].

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