At long last, Garrett Gilbert finds success at SMU

UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas – People couldn’t get enough of SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert after Saturday’s 59-49 win over Temple.

It was only a couple of seasons ago when a lot of people, especially University of Texas fans, had had enough of him.

Gilbert politely posed for picture after picture with fans on the Ford Stadium turf. Kids, fellow students, grown-ups – they all wanted to pose with the popular quarterback.

A school official finally had to tear him away so he could meet with reporters and explain his renaissance season.

Gilbert, finally comfortable in his own cleats, had another record-setting day with 538 yards passing and 97 rushing. His 635 yards of total offense ranks seventh in NCAA history at the FBS level.

He also broke his own school record for passing in addition to tossing four touchdowns. Gilbert got another two scores on the ground in overcoming a 21-point deficit, which ties for the second-largest comeback in school history.

When Gilbert finally sat down in front of reporters, he had a chance to point the finger at all his doubters. Instead, he praised his receivers. Over and over again.

It took some doing, but one question did cause Gilbert to talk about how personally fulfilling his performances this season have been.

“I don’t go out there to…” Gilbert started to say, then paused. “I’m playing the game to be the best quarterback I can be for SMU. There’s no part of me that goes out there to prove a point, send a message to anyone.”

If anyone had the right to crow, it’s Gilbert. An all-everything recruit out of Lake Travis, near Austin, Gilbert followed a near-legend in Colt McCoy at Texas. He left in the middle of what should have been his second season to start, as his struggles matched the Longhorns’ struggles.

He took on a ridiculously heavy academic load to become immediately eligible at SMU, missing out on valuable off-season and summer workouts with his new teammates. When he made a poor pass or a bad decision, the eye-rolling and told-you-so’s were deafening.

Many Texas fans seemed to blame Gilbert for the program’s downturn. His departure did leave Texas with a couple of raw replacements in David Ash and Case McCoy, but time has shown the Longhorns had bigger problems than just quarterback play.

No, Gilbert isn’t the Heisman Trophy contender his pedigree indicated he would be. But he’s played well enough this season at SMU to merit some consideration for post-season honors.

He’s averaging 376.3 passing yards and has thrown 15 touchdowns. Saturday’s win was his sixth 300-yard passing game of the season, and combined with his rushing he’s averaging 408.3 yards of total offense per game.

Against Temple, he completed 37 of 53 passes without giving up a sack or an interception.

In his last home game, a triple-overtime loss to Rutgers, Gilbert was 45-of-70 for 484 yards and accounted for seven touchdowns – five passing, two rushing.

“He’s really come into his own,” SMU coach June Jones said. “I told him as we were leaving the field, I couldn’t be more proud of him. He’s battled through so much stuff and he’s just outworked everybody. And now he’s very comfortable in what we’re doing and he’s competing. He gives us a tremendous advantage.”

The comeback against Temple was on Gilbert’s shoulders. SMU was down 28-7 early in the second quarter. By halftime, Gilbert’s best receiver and playmaker, Jeremy Johnson, and his top running back, Treylon Shead, had been knocked out of the game.

Gilbert seemed to get stronger under pressure. He made a beautiful throw on a 64-yard bomb to Keenan Holman that tied the score at 35-all heading into the fourth quarter.

Then Gilbert managed SMU into position to claim the lead, then stretched it with another 50-yard strike to Holman.

“Garrett did a lot of good things,” Jones said. “It was pretty fun to watch.”

Clearly, the benefit of spending an entire off-season working with his receivers is paying off. That’s a luxury he didn’t have when he reported last year and was instantly made the starter.

“As the season went on last year, and then having the off-season and having the spring and the summer,” Gilbert said, “and like I’ve said many times before, those guys, the receivers in there…”

There he goes again, talking about his receivers. Even though Gilbert tries to put the spotlight on others, it’s finally his turn to shine.

Follow Keith Whitmire on Twitter: @Keith_Whitmire