PASADENA, Calif. -- Colt McCoy had 60 minutes left to cap his incredible career with the only accomplishment he really ever cared about, a national championship.
Four minutes into the big game, he was done -- KO'd by a shoulder injury. By the time he returned to the sideline, his Texas Longhorns seemed out of it, too - trailing by three scores in the third quarter.
Then McCoy traded his helmet for a headset and something stunning happened. His 18-year-old replacement started playing like, well, a combination of McCoy and his predecessor, Vince Young, who also was watching from the sideline.
Garrett Gilbert revived Texas' championship hopes the way McCoy would've, making crucial first-down conversions and throwing deep to Jordan Shipley. They hooked up on a 44-yard touchdown, then a 28-yarder. Then the kid nailed a two-point conversion pass and suddenly the Longhorns were down by only a field goal with 6:25 left. Then Alabama punted and the Longhorns were 93 yards from a go-ahead touchdown with 3:14 and two timeouts left.
Could it be? Could they win it all without the winningest quarterback in college football history?
Ultimately, they couldn't. They needed McCoy more than ever after that.
Gilbert was sacked and fumbled, then threw interceptions on his final two drives. Texas lost 37-21, but the way Gilbert played under these circumstances -- taking the first meaningful snaps of his career early in the BCS Championship Game against No. 1 Alabama, in front of 94,906 at the Rose Bowl -- gave the Longhorns a few sweet memories along with the bitterness of failing to win it all and seeing McCoy's magnificent career end with pain and tears.
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"I love this game, I have a passion for this game. I've done everything I can to contribute to this team and we made it this far," McCoy said. "I'd have given everything I had to be out there with my team."
Gilbert finished 15 of 40 for 186 yards with four interceptions and the fumble. He matched his completion total for the season (in mop-up duty over nine games, never against top foes) and the two TDs were the first two of his career. There's an interesting linking of the eras in the fact both went to Shipley, a sixth-year senior who arrived during Young's sophomore year.
"It's a tough experience, it's a humbling experience," Gilbert said. "It's something you're not going to forget. Guys told me they were proud of me. Throughout the game, Colt was telling me to stay calm. There wasn't much time to think about it. I got thrown in and knew I was going to be counted on by my teammates to step up."
McCoy was injured on on just the fifth snap of Texas' fifth possession.
He kept the ball on an option to his left and was hit square by lineman Marcell Dareus for no gain. McCoy described it as a pinched nerve.
He tried throwing the ball in the locker room, but had no control. The once-wispy kid who proved durable enough to start 52 consecutive games, and won an NCAA-record 45, finally had an injury he couldn't shake off.
"I don't have lots of pain, that was never the issue," McCoy said. "My arm went numb. There's no telling where the ball would have gone if I would try to throw. ... It feels like I slept on my arm, woke up and it's dead."
Coach Mack Brown has long figured his program would be in good shape when McCoy gives way to Gilbert, who is bigger and has a stronger arm. However, he was counting on the transition coming one game and eight months later.
In the first half, Gilbert basically played like an 18-year-old whose best days are ahead of him. He had some good throws dropped, then forced a shovel pass into traffic in the closing seconds of the first half and saw it get intercepted and returned for a touchdown, sending the Longhorns into the locker room trailing 24-6.
"Just keep playing," Brown told Gilbert at halftime. "You're a good player. It's a hard learning curve; learn fast."
Indeed, Gilbert started showing some of the poise and precision that made him a high school superstar. Coincidence or not, the turnaround came after McCoy returned to the sideline, offering advice and encouragement.
When it was over and confetti was flying and Alabama players were celebrating, Gilbert stood about 35 yards away, watching with moist eyes. Shipley walked over, clapped him on the chest and said, "You did the best you could do. Be proud of that."