PASADENA, Calif. -- One was on his way out, the other on his way in. Quarterbacks Colt McCoy and Garrett Gilbert never could have envisioned such a traumatic ending and beginning to their respective careers at Texas.
Garrett, a true freshman and the senior McCoy's heir apparent, was here for the ride, to breathe it all in, to embrace that Texas football is about competing for championships, just as an unknown, redshirted McCoy did four years ago as he stood on the sidelines of a buzzing Rose Bowl.
Then, Vince Young turned to McCoy in the tense moments of the fourth quarter against ballyhooed USC, as McCoy recalls it, and said to the scrawny freshman from tiny Tuscola, 'You'll be in this position some day.'"
Unfortunately for McCoy, he didn't make it past the fifth play of Thursday's 37-21 loss in BCS national championship game. On an option run with a quick-working Texas offense threatening off the bat at the Alabama 11-yard line, McCoy's right shoulder absorbed the brunt of a collision with Alabama's 296-pound defensive end Marcell Dareus.
The hit deadened McCoy's arm. He said it felt like a "noodle" as he maddeningly tried to snap it back into shape in a quiet Texas locker room, but he couldn't even muster the arm strength to toss short passes to his dad. The blow, legal and clean, simultaneously ended McCoy's illustrious career and, it would have seemed, the Longhorns' title dreams.
As McCoy left the field clutching his limp throwing arm, a lanky 6-4 true freshman, who 13 months earlier was winning a second straight state championship at Austin's Lake Travis High School, buckled up his chin strap.
As Gilbert bounded to the huddle for a second-and-10 at the Alabama 11, he didn't look up into a sea of 94,906 fans crammed into the storied old stadium.
"I just told myself this is it," Gilbert said. "This is the opportunity I've been waiting for -- obviously God forbid Colt getting hurt like that, it was an unfortunate situation -- but, I had to step in. My teammates were counting on me."
Gilbert couldn't get the Longhorns in the end zone on that drive or on the next possession after Texas got the ball back on a bloop kickoff that found open grass, bounced and was recovered by Texas at the Alabama 30. Two field goals made it just 6-0 when everyone knew that without McCoy, the Longhorns had needed 14.
As Alabama's ground attack heated up, paving the way for a 14-6 lead, Gilbert, who shook off an early shot to his right shoulder, tried to find his bearings against a fierce Tide defense. He completed just one of his first 10 attempts for minus-4 yards and two interceptions. The second one, an ill-advised shovel pass in the waning seconds of the first half, fell into the arms of Dareus, who took it 28 yards into the end zone with three seconds left.
It particularly stung because the Texas defense had just held for a field goal, a victory of sorts considering how the Alabama offensive line had used the second quarter to blow open holes for running backs Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. Down 17-6, the deficit seemed at least manageable.
At 24-6, it was a different story. Gilbert and Texas looked ripe for a punishing second half.
"It was tough initially and we struggled a little bit for a while and the play before halftime hurt us pretty bad," senior receiver Jordan Shipley said. "But at halftime, everybody came in and rallied together."
McCoy, knowing his day and his career were done, put his arm around the freshman quarterback.
"I said, 'Hey, forget about everything else,'" McCoy said. "'You have nothing to gain, nothing to lose, nothing to prove, just go out there and do what you do in practice every day. Trust your teammates, trust your receivers -- our receivers were getting open. When he did that, when he settled down, he went to work and we were in the game in the fourth quarter."
Slowly, Gilbert regrouped and started hooking up with Shipley. Late in the third quarter, Gilbert hit freshman Marquise Goodwin for 13 yards. Two plays later he lofted a pretty pass down the middle of the field, hitting Shipley in stride for a 44-yard touchdown to make it 24-13. Suddenly, the Texas fans burst to life.
"I started seeing the field better, being able to move around in the pocket better a little bit, and started completing some passes," Gilbert said. "That helped me start clicking a little bit."
The Texas defense stood its ground, keeping it in the game and buying Gilbert time to build his confidence. On the second drive of the fourth quarter, with McCoy on the sideline, purposefully still wearing his shoulder pads and uniform and cheering with his good arm, Gilbert completed short gainers to Shipley and then to running back Tre' Newton.
Then Gilbert targeted Shipley three more times for 5, 13 and 12 yards to the Alabama 25. After a 3-yard loss, Gilbert stood in the pocket, waited, and threw a strike to Shipley near the right pylon just as he absorbed a crunching blow that sent him crashing to the turf.
Unfazed, Gilbert hit Dan Buckner for the two-point conversion and Texas trailed 24-21 in what was shaping up as an unimaginable storybook finish with 6:15 to play.
The tireless Texas defense again forced a punt and Shipley called for a fair catch at the Texas 7 with 3:14 to go. Gilbert had seen McCoy pull this kind of thing off before and he believed he could, too.
"Absolutely," he said. "I had all the confidence in the world in our offense as a unit. We were obviously moving the ball."
But on second down, Alabama linebacker and fellow Texan Eryk Anders blindsided Gilbert, forcing a fumble that Courtney Upshaw recovered at the 3. Alabama's Ingram punched it in on third-and-goal for a 31-21 lead. They added another touchdown after a tipped pass was picked off, adding a fourth interception to Gilbert's totals.
But that was inconsequential. The youngster had had himself quite a second half and gave a crowd expecting a blowout a riveting final 30 minutes to the college season. After the awful start, Gilbert completed 14-of-30 for 190 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
"We're in the game in the fourth quarter because he's in there playing," McCoy said. "I taught him everything I know all year long. I did the same thing to him that Vince did to me, and that guy is going to have a stellar career. For a true freshman to step into a national championship game, throw two touchdowns; just being thrown into the fire -- yeah, he was prepared, we watched film together, we study together, we know what's going to happen, he's in my hip pocket all the time -- but, still, to be able to do what he did is very impressive."
In the aftermath, Gilbert sat at his locker, his eyes bloodshot, unable to keep his lips from quivering. He maturely answered every question asked of him about his first meaningful action of the season and how he'll use it to springboard into his career.
About 50 feet away stood McCoy, his lips pursed and his head held firm, answering every question about his final game and the disappointment of how it ended as it did. He had endured last season's controversial ending that left Texas out of the title hunt. He lost out on the Heisman Trophy as a junior and senior. And now this.
"I worked my whole career to be put on this stage, to be given this opportunity to play here in the national championship and never in my wildest dreams did I think it would be taken away like that," McCoy said. "I'm handling my emotions now; I don't know how I am."
Gilbert, who praised McCoy as an "unbelievable mentor," somehow handled his emotions, too. He knew he would play one day, but that day was supposed to be Sept. 4, 2010 at Rice, not now, not on this stage.
"Coach Davis prepared me well," Gilbert said, referring to Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis. "But, I guess you can't ever imagine anything like this."