NORMAN — Dillon Gabriel is that rare Oklahoma quarterback who talks like Landry Jones but can strut like Baker Mayfield.
This feels very important given Gabriel is about to quarterback OU against Texas, the program Jones and Mayfield beat five times in six tries as starting QBs.
The Sooners need Gabriel to throw a 39-yard touchdown bomb to Nic Anderson in the Cotton Bowl, and then prance his way down the field, two things he did in one sequence during Saturday night’s 50-20 victory over Iowa State.
They need Gabriel to body-check a safety before scoring a 1-yard touchdown, and then yap at the next safety arriving a little late, two things he did during another sequence against the Cyclones.
This is Gabriel playing, in his words post-Iowa State, “free and easy,” something he failed to do last year and pushed to correct last offseason. Mayfield played free and easy, against Texas and everyone else, and his Sooners followed that lead. OU expects to follow Gabriel’s lead next Saturday.
“DG kept saying, ‘This is our party, this is our house,’” wide receiver Jayden Gibson said post-Iowa State. “I follow him, bro. He’s a great leader. I go as he goes. He’s the team, the heartbeat, in my opinion.”
When 11 a.m. rolls around next Saturday, Gabriel will be just as important as the Sooners’ regulator. Like Jones was in beating Texas 55-17 and 63-21 in 2011 and ‘12. Jones was as poised in the pocket as he was monotoned in the press conferences. That was as effective as Mayfield’s exuberance.
Gabriel channeled Jones during his Iowa State press briefing, speaking softly as he set his typical pregame mood.
“This is my perspective: I’d say I’m very cool, calm and collected,” he said. “Focus on my preparation. Continue to prepare up until the very last second. And just trying to make sure I’m on (point) with every situation possible.
“And then when I run out that tunnel it’s playing free, playing fast and having fun with it.”
The Sooners must have that combination of calm and combustion against Texas. They need Gabriel to reach peak balance, so he can play at peak level in a game he has no other choice.
Texas has an advantage in most of the head-to-head matchups. Heisman Trophy polls dictate the Longhorns have an edge at quarterback.
Gabriel must outplay Quinn Ewers to give OU a shot to outplay an opponent with superior talent, and what figures to be superior confidence built from last year’s 49-0 butt-kicking.
“We lost him last year. We got him this year,” linebacker Danny Stutsman said, noting Gabriel sat out 49-0 with a head injury. “He’s playing great football…
“With him, we’re a thousand times better.”
Having missed out on a game everyone comes to OU to play, Gabriel should be the most motivated Sooner player next week. That past isn’t as important as the present, though, isn’t as important as Gabriel maintaining his balance reached over OU’s 5-0 start.
He is having more fun playing ball this season. Consider what he said about that tackle-breaking touchdown run Saturday: “My dad’s a basketball coach. Growing up, we always loved calling for an ‘and-one.’ I believe that was an ‘and-one.’”
Gabriel is in such a better place than he was this time last year, and not just because he got knocked out of OU-Texas the Saturday before against TCU.
“Talk about a rollercoaster. It was,” he said of OU’s 6-7 2022 experience. “But you learn a lot about yourself, your team, the people around you.”
Gabriel learned he needed a bit of a reboot.
“Going into the offseason… pushing one another because of the big offseason we needed to have, but also having fun with it,” he said. “Embracing the third-and-short, embracing the fourth-and-short and wanting to go get it, embracing situations that people might not want to be in. It’s inevitable to be in those positions. So embracing it, having fun with it and making it something you want to pride yourself on.”
Gabriel’s numbers and his team’s record indicate he emerged from that offseason not just a better quarterback, but a more influential teammate.
“It’s going to mean a lot to all of us. Him too, no doubt,” wide receiver Brenen Thompson said of OU-Texas after beating Iowa State. “I think every game is kind of personal for him. I’ve kind of taken that and added it to my game.
“I think he’s prepared the same and had the same mindset going into every game, and it’s been unbelievable to watch.”
There’s the Jones in him. Gabriel must maintain that stability inside the Cotton Bowl, tough as it will be.
“Only a few people have quarterbacked in an environment like that. It’s special,” he said. “Special atmosphere, two passionate fan bases wanting to create an atmosphere for a great game. I was able to see it from a distance (last year). Seeing it on the field will definitely be different.”
How to keep it “free and easy” in that arena?
“I go back to you dream about this. This is something as a kid you want to be a part of,” Gabriel said. “Shoot I bet all of you want to be there, too. Just being in that environment, it’s special. And not a lot of people get to do it. So I’m gonna embrace it and have fun with it.”
His fun has translated to the Sooners’ this season. That must translate most clearly against Texas.
When Gabriel must continue to channel Mayfield and Jones in order to do what they did to the Longhorns.