Red River QB paths diverged after classic

Three years ago, two of the best quarterbacks in the history of the Red River Rivalry stepped on the field of the Cotton Bowl in Dallas and played one of the greatest games in the rivalry's history.

Texas won that day 45-35, and on Saturday, the two will meet as undefeateds for the first time since.

These days, Colt McCoy has gone from the burnt orange of Texas to the Browns of Cleveland. Sam Bradford, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft, is busy trying to revive the St. Louis Rams.

Two seasons after McCoy exhausted his eligibility and Bradford left early for the NFL, the programs they left behind find themselves in very different positions.

Oklahoma, winners of seven Big 12 titles with six quarterbacks, has another star quarterback. Landry Jones is a bona fide Heisman contender racking up yards by the bunches.

Texas? Garrett Gilbert threw 17 interceptions in 2010's 5-7 campaign before injuring his shoulder and undergoing season-ending surgery after being benched.

Left behind are Case McCoy and David Ash, who have a combined 57 career pass attempts. Jones has attempted 82 passes in his two Red River Rivalry games alone.

"[Jones] is a great advantage for them going into this game because he’s been in the game and won the game and he’s completing 72 percent of his passes," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "He’s a tremendous player, and in my estimation, he should be the leader for the Heisman."

The handoff from Colt McCoy and Bradford went the same way. An injury forced each out of duty. The results, though, were vastly different.

Gilbert nearly rallied his team to a win in the national title game against Alabama in 2009, despite turning the ball over five times.

Jones was charged with starting 10 games and replacing an injured Bradford in two others as the Sooners stumbled to an 8-5 season.

"It’s understandable that a guy that’s not expected to play for another year gets thrown in and is going to have a couple rough spots," said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops.

Jones struggled against Texas in the Red River Rivalry and threw five interceptions in a road loss to Nebraska.

The common bond between Gilbert and Jones' early struggles? The supporting cast.

"So many guys around him were hurt and not able to play, either," Stoops said. "I think a little bit’s been made too much of him and the whole team struggled with the multitude of injuries we had."

Gilbert didn't deal with injuries, but he dealt with a Texas team that looked nothing like the group that had helped McCoy succeed.

"Last year was just such an enigma to everybody and to me," Brown said. "I think I just did a poor job last year. We were trying to get back to running the ball more and we didn’t do it consistently well last year."

That's changed this year, with a new offensive coordinator in Bryan Harsin and freshman offensive weapons in running back Malcolm Brown and receiver Jaxon Shipley, both aided by an offensive line that has made major strides since 2010.

Gilbert's gone, and the Longhorns are left to rely on inexperience at quarterback. Can Ash or Case McCoy see the kind of growth Jones did? It won't be easy in the first year.

"People had told me how difficult it was and how fast the game moved, but I guess I just really didn’t take it to heart," Jones said. "If I actually listened and really understood what they were trying to tell me, how fast it was and how much your emotions really get into the game and trying to slow things down and play within yourself, I really think I would have understood before I went in there."

Jones has logged plenty of snaps since, and went from flawed youngster to one of the nation's best. How did he do it? Well, by struggling.

"Getting thrown into college football and kind of being a little bit unprepared for it, I think," Jones said. "Being thrown into the fire was really good for me."

Jones had the luxury in his first season of practicing alongside the injured Bradford and having him on the sidelines during games. Bradford would calm him down and offer thoughts on what he saw.

He also helped the naturally quiet Jones grow into a compelling leader, as did the success that came with experience.

"That first year when Sam was here it was kind of his team and I was kind of in the background helping him out," Jones said. "Then I got thrust into there and [it was difficult] kind of figuring out how to lead and how to motivate people."

The same task is ahead of Texas' young quarterbacks, who are far behind Jones' schedule.

Still, no quarterback suiting up for Saturday's game can forget what Jones and Gilbert both learned, and what McCoy and Ash learned during Gilbert's struggles.

"You never know when you’re going to get your shot," Jones said.