ORLANDO — From the crowded quarterback room at UCF, a true freshman emerged to lead the No. 17 Knights against Stanford on Saturday.
Dillon Gabriel, who broke a myriad of high school state passing records in Hawaii, including career passing yards that was previously held by current Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, picked apart the Cardinal defense in just his second start.
The Mililani, Hawaii, native connected on more than 73 percent of his passes, torching the Stanford secondary to the tune of 347 yards and four touchdowns in a 45–27 win in front of 45,008 at Spectrum Stadium.
“It’s a big win for the program,” Knights coach Josh Heupel said after the triumph over a team from a Power Five conference. “People who watch us play understand that we play championship-caliber football each and every week.”
Gabriel struck quickly against the Pac-12 opponent, firing a 28-yard touchdown pass to receiver Marlon Williams after only three minutes in the first quarter.
Then he did it again three minutes later, hitting receiver Tre Nixon on a 38-yard score.
And again, connecting with receiver Gabriel Davis over the top of the Stanford defense for a 38-yard touchdown, Gabriel’s third scoring pass of the quarter.
“He’s obviously got a ton of confidence,” Heupel said of Gabriel. “He’s unflappable.”
Before Saturday’s nonconference matchup, the Knights had started a different quarterback in each of their past four wins, dating to last season.
McKenzie Milton led the offense in the 2018 regular-season finale against USF before going down with a right knee injury. Insert Darriel Mack, who steered the Knights to a win over Memphis in the American Athletic Conference title game, but he broke his ankle in July.
Brandon Wimbush, a graduate transfer from Notre Dame, led UCF to a win against Florida A&M to kick off this season, but his position atop the quarterback depth chart was short-lived.
Gabriel started under center in a Week 2 win at Florida Atlantic, but Heupel declined to name a starting quarterback before the matchup against Stanford.
After the Cardinal’s opening drive resulted in a three-and-out, Gabriel’s early performance eliminated any talk of a quarterback competition in Orlando, if only for this week.
UCF (3-0) scored touchdowns on its first four drives. By the end of the first quarter, the Knights offense had put together touchdown drives of 77, 1, 62 and 65 yards to rack up 28 points. Gabriel accounted for 186 passing yards in the first 15 minutes.
“I feel like we just did our job,” Gabriel said. “Everyone believes in each other.”
While UCF seemed to do no wrong, a lifeless Stanford team couldn’t get out of its own way. Even a pregame pep talk from Stanford alumnus Tiger Woods was not enough to spark the Cardinal.
Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello, returning from a concussion that held him out of last week’s loss at Southern California, was intercepted by cornerback Aaron Robinson on his second series of the game. Robinson returned the interception to the Stanford 1, setting up a Greg McCrae touchdown run and a 14-0 lead.
Through its first eight drives, Stanford (1-2) punted six times, threw one interception and scored once, burying the Cardinal in a 38-7 halftime deficit.
Despite Gabriel’s commanding performance over a Power Five team, Heupel was hesitant to name him the starter going forward.
“Regardless of what happens, all I can do is … prepare like I am the guy,” said Gabriel, who, if he remains the starter, faces Pittsburgh on the road next week, the only other Power Five opponent remaining on the Knights’ schedule.