EL PASO, Texas – Two months ago, there wouldn’t have been many reasons for Jake Dickert, then Washington State’s defensive coordinator, to speak with Victor Gabalis, a walk-on quarterback who was third or fourth on the team’s depth chart.
Considering where they both were in September, this image from the postgame news conference following Friday’s Sun Bowl seemed especially unlikely: Dickert, WSU’s new head coach, embracing Gabalis, the quarterback who nearly played the role of hero in the second half at Sun Bowl Stadium, where the Cougars fell just short of completing a comeback against Central Michigan, losing 24-21 to finish the season with a 7-6 record.
Take your pick as to which scenario seemed like more of a long shot – Dickert’s rise from coordinator to head coach, Gabalis’ relief efforts in the second half, or the Sun Bowl happening at all given the uncertainty surrounding the game earlier in the week – but the one involving WSU’s backup quarterback grabbed most of the attention in the wake of Friday’s game, and deservedly so.
When WSU starting QB Jayden de Laura suffered a lower-body injury late in the second quarter of Friday’s game, Gabalis was called on to play meaningful snaps for just the second time in his career. Earlier this season, the Cougars’ depth chart seemed to fluctuate on a weekly basis, but Gabalis, a preferred walk-on from Everett, was generally presumed to be the team’s fourth-stringer behind de Laura, Cammon Cooper and Jarrett Guarantano.
With Cooper entering the transfer portal earlier in the month and Guarantano not traveling with the team to El Paso for reasons that remain unclear, Gabalis became the team’s No. 2 option this week at the Sun Bowl.
“I just always prepared myself to be ready,” Gabalis said. “I’ve got a great group of guys, group of men behind me that trust in me, and they give me faith in myself and coach Dickert gave us a great speech coming out of halftime. I just really felt the guys had my back and they gave me a lot of confidence.”
Being ready is one thing, but executing amid the circumstances Gabalis faced on Friday is another. The Cougars came into the game without their longtime starting offensive tackles, Liam Ryan and Abe Lucas, were shorthanded in the backfield without Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh, and lost second-leading receiver Calvin Jackson Jr. to injury in the first half.
And none of those challenges paled to this one: The Cougars trailed 21-0 after finishing with less than 90 yards of total offense in the first half.
Gabalis’ first six plays netted minus-2 yards and he lost 8 yards on Troy Hairston’s sack – CMU’s fourth of the game – but WSU’s third drive of the half yielded more positive results. Gabalis completed two passes to Lincoln Victor and one to Travell Harris 67 combined yards and the Cougars scored their first touchdown on a direct snap to Harris, who ran in from 5 yards out.
Travion Brown’s interception gave WSU the ball back in CMU territory. Facing fourth-and-5, Gabalis tossed his first college touchdown, completing a short pass to De’Zhaun Stribling to make it 21-14.
The offense came up short on its next two drives, but after CMU’s field goal made it a 10-point game, Gabalis came alive again.
The 6-foot-3, 213-pound signal-caller, who was lauded more than once in preseason camp by former coach Nick Rolovich for his arm strength, dialed up a 56-yard pass down the right sideline to Donovan Ollie.
Gabalis displayed his power, then his precision, floating a 16-yard TD to Victor in the back corner of the end zone to trim the deficit to three points. Although the Cougars got the defensive stop they needed, their second-half rally came up 1 yard short when Gabalis’ fourth-and-5 pass to Joey Hobert gained just 4 yards.
One of three players invited to WSU’s postgame presser, Gabalis wore an expression of disappointment on his face, but still relished the moment that Friday’s game provided. It’s not naive to think his performance could go a long way toward shedding his walk-on status, especially considering the Cougars will have at least two vacant QB scholarships open this offseason.
“It means a lot to me, but it means more for the guys that were around me,” Gabalis said. “They just helped me have a great game and I couldn’t be more thankful for them.”
With Gabalis sitting to his left, Dickert said the QB’s preparation and work ethic throughout the season allowed him to succeed in an environment he didn’t expect to be prior to Friday’s game kicking off.
“There’s one thing I learned this week, we were at Fort Bliss I believe on Wednesday and the general told me his sixth rule of leadership is, ‘Be ready,’ and I think that just embodies what Vic stands for,” Dickert said. “He’s always stayed ready, it hasn’t always gone his way. He practices that way, he prepares that way so when he gets in his moment he’s going to be ready for his opportunity.
“I thought that’s exactly what he did there in the second half and really gave us a good spark.”
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