NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — Oklahoma quarterback Dillon Gabriel has put up big numbers for years.
Now, he finally has a chance to seize the national spotlight.
The redshirt senior is second among active Bowl Subdivision players with nearly 13,000 career yards passing, but he hasn’t had that special moment or big win that grabbed the nation’s attention. He was productive when he started his career at Central Florida, but that was a Group of Five program at the time. He transferred to Oklahoma and started for the Sooners last season, but sat out the 49-0 loss to Texas with a head injury, and the team stumbled to a 6-7 finish and a loss in the Cheez-It Bowl.
Now, Gabriel has his opportunity. He could put his team in the race for a College Football Playoff spot and make himself a clear Heisman contender when the 12th-ranked Sooners (5-0, 2-0 Big 12) play No. 3 Texas (5-0, 2-0) Saturday at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
“It’s an atmosphere, environment you live for, dream of,” he said.
Gabriel witnessed the craziness of the rivalry game last year as he watched the first half from the sideline, then observed the second half from the press box. He recalled the disappointment of not being able to play.
“I think just being sidelined, being off the field — it’s just not fun,” he said. “I play the game because I love it. It’s something I’m passionate about. You work so hard with a group of guys, and not being able to be on the field with them, it didn’t feel the best. I think you learn a lot from those moments as well, both as a player and as a group.”
Texas will face a much better quarterback than it would have seen last year, when Gabriel was the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year. He ranks in the top 10 nationally in passing yardage, total offense, touchdown passes, completion percentage and passer efficiency rating.
The mobile 5-foot-11 left-hander also has four rushing touchdowns this season.
“He’s the head of the snake,” Texas linebacker Jaylan Ford said. “We know he’s going to make the team go. He’s the quarterback, so his ability to make certain throws gives his receivers chances to go up and make plays on the ball. I definitely see that on tape.”
Quite a few Oklahoma fans on social media were ready to move on from Gabriel this season and rush in five-star freshman Jackson Arnold. Venables said Arnold’s presence has helped Gabriel.
“Competition should bring out the best of everyone if you’re made of the right stuff,” Oklahoma coach Brent Venables said. “I don’t think Dillon’s ever felt ‘threatened,’ but certainly knows that the young guy’s watching him every day and is incredibly talented in his own right.”
Gabriel doesn’t have a clear favorite receiver. Nic Anderson leads Oklahoma with five touchdown receptions on just 10 catches. The 6-foot-4 freshman is former Oklahoma running back Rodney Anderson’s younger brother. Drake Stoops, former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops’ son, leads the team with 25 receptions. Andrel Anthony leads the team with 387 yards receiving.
His 15 touchdown passes have gone to eight receivers, and none have caught more than four scoring passes from him.
“I think it’s a credit to all the players and getting open,” Venables said. “And then I think Dillon having the poise to go through his reads and take advantage of where the openings are if you will. All of it together is great chemistry, great understanding by everybody involved, then everybody gets an opportunity to have some success.”
He’s done it all with just a few key receivers back from last year. Drake Stoops said the quickly developed chemistry comes from offseason work.
“It’s just building his connection and rapport with the wide receivers, us all being on the same page and having a good connection and him knowing where we’re going to be and us being at the right place at the right time and just making plays for each other,” Drake Stoops said.
Last week, Gabriel passed for three touchdowns and ran for two in a 50-20 win over Iowa State. All three touchdowns went to different players, an example of his command of the offense.
“Couldn’t ask for much better,” Venables said. “You’d have to be pretty dang picky to find some places, but he’s done incredibly well. He’s made improvement, he’s making great decisions, playing with great confidence, still having humility and respect for what it takes to be successful and practices with a game-like mentality, and it shows up.”
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll