PASADENA, Calif. -- If this were a movie, everyone in the theater would have gotten their money back until the projector was fixed. If this were a late-night talk show, we'd be watching a repeat until the host returned. If this were a musical, the understudy would be able to belt out the opening number just as seamlessly as the star.
But this is sports and there are no refunds, exchanges or repeats, and as we learned Thursday, the understudy is never able to carry a tune as well as the headliner.
Before some fans were even able to take their seats at the Rose Bowl for the BCS National Championship Game, Texas quarterback Colt McCoy was relegated to the sideline and done for the day. McCoy, the winningest quarterback in NCAA history, injured his passing shoulder on the fifth snap of the game when he was hit by Alabama lineman Marcell Dareus on an option run.
It was a hit he had taken hundreds of times before -- most of them harder than the one he took Thursday -- but as fate would have it, the quarterback who has never missed a game with an injury while winning 45 games in 52 starts got knocked out by this one.
The wide-eyed player who stood on the Rose Bowl sidelines four years ago as Vince Young engineered one of the greatest drives in college football history was once again left to stand on the sideline next to Young while redshirt freshman Garrett Gilbert was playing in his game and living out his dream.
Gilbert looked like a freshman quarterback who anticipated he would be pacing up and down the sidelines early on. He completed just 4 of his first 22 passes for 46 yards and threw two interceptions. Most people at home probably turned off the game after Dareus intercepted a Gilbert shovel pass and took it back 28 yards for the touchdown to give Alabama a 24-6 halftime lead. Most Texas fans at the Rose Bowl wished they could have changed the channel, too.
After starting the game with a couple of field goals and taking a 6-0 lead, Texas' next nine drives ended with seven punts and two interceptions.
While Texas continued to do go three-and-out, the Tide got lulled into thinking they didn't have to do much to win a game that seemed almost gift-wrapped for them before the sun even set behind the San Gabriel Mountains.
That's when Gilbert finally and inexplicably stepped up and nearly engineered one of the most improbable comebacks in college football history. He threw two touchdowns to Jordan Shipley, McCoy's roommate and best friend, and brought the score to 24-21 with 6:15 left. Just as Texas fans began reliving dreams of their comeback win against USC four years ago -- when the Longhorns erased a 12-point deficit in the final five minutes -- Alabama woke up and put the game away with a couple of turnovers that led to touchdowns.
As Gilbert seemed poised to engineer a possible game-winning or game-tying drive, Alabama linebacker Eryk Anders forced a fumble on a blindside sack that led to a touchdown by Tide running back Marc Ingram. In a cruel twist of fate, Texas fans were forced to watch their dreams dashed while Ingram and Alabama celebrated in the same end zone that Young scored in four years earlier.
It was a predictable ending to a game that had an unpredictable beginning and an even unlikelier middle.
The unusual story arc of this game likely would have provided a different ending if McCoy had been in the game. The Longhorns were in control early -- intercepting a fake punt, recovering an unintentional onside kick and scoring on their first two drives. The odds that McCoy, who completed his only two passes for 9 yards, would have led 10 scoreless Texas drives were probably as likely as the odds of his getting knocked out of the game. But that's football. There's no asterisk next to Alabama's national title, even though McCoy spent about as much time on the field as a streaker that was allowed to run around for nearly a minute.
"As much as I enjoy winning, you always hate to see a great competitor who's had a great career not be able to participate in a game that he's probably worked his entire career to be a part of," said Alabama coach Nick Saban, who became the first coach to win national titles at two different schools since the AP poll era began in 1936. "That's heartfelt for us and his family that he was not able to participate in the game today."
McCoy, who couldn't feel his shoulder because of a pinched nerve, had to hold back tears after the game as Alabama players celebrated around him. Despite being ruled out of the game at the half, he insisted on finishing his collegiate career with his jersey on his back even if he wasn't able to put his team on there one last time.
"Colt has got a career at Texas that is second to none," said Texas coach Mack Brown. "He has played so tough and so hard all year and he was trying at halftime to get back, but I knew he wasn't healthy. He wanted to play even though he shouldn't have. That's how tough he is."