Dillon Gabriel Lights Up Stanford As UCF Improves To 3-0

UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel threw four touchdown passes in a 45-27 win over Stanford in Orlando on Saturday. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

ORLANDO — It would seem that there is no question as to who the UCF starting quarterback is.

Certainly not after freshman Dillon Gabriel carved up visiting Stanford over the course of the first 30 minutes of a 45-27 victory at Spectrum Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

Yet, coach Josh Heupel wasn’t about to bite.

“We’ll see as we go through the weekend and evaluate where we are at,” he said, after his No. 17/16 Knights won their 17th straight at home to move to 3-0.

Gabriel, who made his first start last week at FAU, threw for 250 yards and three touchdowns as the Knights opened up a 38-7 lead at the half. The lefty from Hawaii finished the day completing 22-of-30 passes for 347 yards and four touchdowns with no turnovers. He spread the wealth as his TD passes went to four different receivers. 

“I think it speaks for how much talent we have around the ball,” said Gabriel, of his distribution. “I wouldn’t want to be a defense against us because I would not know who to cover. Every guy is capable of making plays and it showed.”

It showed that Gabriel should be the unquestioned starting quarterback. Brandon Wimbush, a graduate transfer from Notre Dame, started the opener against Florida A&M and sat out last week with an undisclosed injury.

Wimbush saw the field for only play Saturday and that was on a designed run on 2nd-and-goal with 8:30 remaining in the second quarter. Wimbush lost two yards and the Knights ultimately settled for a 21-yard Dylan Barnas field goal that made the score 31-7.

Wimbush was the starter heading into preseason camp after Darriel Mack Jr. broke an ankle in July. Mack, who took over for the injured McKenzie Milton at the end of last season, returned to practice this week. He did not play against the Cardinal.

Gabriel was ready from the get-go against Stanford (1-2) and capped the Knights’ first drive with a 28-yard scoring strike to Marlon Williams.

It was the sign of things to come on an afternoon when Gabriel threw one pretty ball after another. He was especially effective going deep, including 38-yard touchdown passes to Tre Nixon and Gabriel Davis less than four minutes apart in the opening quarter and sandwiched around Stanford’s lone score of the half.

“I feel like we just did our job, and that’s the main thing,” said Gabriel. “We stayed together as a unit with everyone believing in each other, and it worked out.”

It sure did. Gabriel threw for 186 yards and three TDs in a first quarter that saw the Knights build a 28-7 lead. At the half, UCF had 414 yards on 43 plays for an average of 9.6 yards per play.

Stanford had the ball most of the third quarter (10:21) and Quadry Jones came on midway through the fourth quarter to spell Gabriel, whose final pass of the day was a one-yard touchdown to tight end Jake Hescock to make it 45-17 with 11:17 remaining.

“Things that guys inside the program, coaches and players alike, I think have seen is he has gained more knowledge, understanding and a grasp of what we are doing offensively,” said Heupel of Gabriel’s progress. “I think you see the confidence in him from our offensive players, but (also) our entire program.”

You would think Heupel has seen enough to officially anoint Gabriel as his starter ahead of UCF’s trip to Pitt next Saturday.

Tom Layberger has been a sports writer and editor since 1990. Among the companies he has worked for are Beckett Publishing, The Topps Company and Comcast. In addition to being a contributing writer for sportstalkflorida.com, Tom also writes for forbes.com and Tampa Bay Business & Wealth Magazine. A native of the Philadelphia suburbs and a University of South Florida grad, Tom is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the National Football Foundation. He resides in Tampa.