Agonizing night for Texas QBs
PASADENA, Calif. – Colt McCoy lined up about 7 yards from his dad, Brad. This was inside the Texas locker room underneath the Rose Bowl bleachers, the Longhorns quarterback missing the biggest game of his career, about to attempt the most important throw of his life.
Colt had the ball and was going to pass it to his dad as a slew of doctors and trainers watched closely. How many times had these two thrown a football back and forth, from their yard in little Tuscola, Texas, to the practice fields of Jim Ned High School, where the dad was the coach and the son was the star?
“Millions,” Colt said. “Millions of times.”
Colt had just lied to the Texas doctors and said that he was capable of returning to the BCS title game against Alabama. A hit by the Tide’s Marcell Dareus, on the fifth play of the game, had sent him to this locker room. He wanted back out there. So he tried to sound convincing despite the fact his arm felt “like a noodle.”
He hadn’t come this far to sit. Colt McCoy was going to lead Texas to the championship. He believed this. He’d always believed this. When he went down, he said, “We were about to dominate.” They weren’t going to lose, not where the Longhorns had last won a championship in 2005, not against a team against whom they’d never lost, certainly not 37-21, as the scoreboard would show after 60 minutes.
Yet on the TV in the corner, he had seen it all fade away in his absence. Alabama was rolling; Texas’ early lead was long gone.
So Colt gripped the ball, stared at his dad and thought, “It’s just a simple throw.” He threw. The ball went soft and wide. Everyone grimaced. “Give it to me again,” Colt demanded. Brad got the ball and gave it back to his son. The next throw was the same, bouncing harmlessly away. “Give it to me again,” Colt said, again. Brad did.
It was the same. It was over. Colt couldn’t throw it 7 yards to his own father. “My arm was dead,” he said. The dad hugged his son. The son broke down and cried.
“There’s no pain on my body,” Colt said later. “If I was a free safety, I’d go out there and make a tackle. I [just] have no strength to throw a football.”
Garrett Gilbert had arrived at the Rose Bowl hoping to play, but not until the fourth quarter, maybe some mop-up duty as the Longhorns cruised to the title. He was a true freshman, an Austin kid and just being here was enough. This was McCoy’s team. Everyone knew that. He’d started every week for four years, won more games than anyone in the sport’s history.
Colt was the guy who never got hurt. Then he got hurt.
So in went Gilbert and while this wasn’t how he wanted it to happen, he jogged out into the middle of a raucous Rose Bowl, his team leading 3-0, and thought, “This is my chance. This is my time.”
He was awful. He was hesitant. His passes weren’t close. His coaches had so little confidence in him they kept running the simplest of running plays. Alabama took the lead and then extended it.
Now the clock was running down on this terrible half of Texas football and Garrett Gilbert was 1-for-9 on the game with an interception.
On what might have been the last play of the half, the call came in for a shovel pass. Gilbert tried it, the ball got tipped and suddenly that same Alabama player that had knocked McCoy out of the game, Marcell Dareus, caught the ball and was chugging toward the end zone.
Dareus goes about 307. Gilbert about 207. The quarterback didn’t care; he was not going to let this lineman pick-six him. Gilbert went for a bear hug. Dareus threw out a stiff arm for the ages and tossed Gilbert to the ground. From there, the freshman quarterback, sprawled out on the grass had to watch the big lineman dance in for another Alabama score. The Tide led 24-6.
“Terrible,” Gilbert said. “I felt terrible.”
There were the two quarterbacks in the halftime locker room and they could’ve had a debate over who was having a worse night. Was it the guy who couldn’t complete a 7-yard pass to his dad? Or the one whose only completion of the game at that point had resulted in a 4-yard loss?
There was no commiserating. McCoy was in Gilbert’s face; not shouting, just teaching. This is what Vince Young had done for McCoy and Chris Simms had done for Vince Young and so on and so on.
“This season I taught him everything I know,” McCoy said.
He needed Gilbert to remember a most important lesson – how to forget. The first half was done and gone. Nothing was going to change it.
“‘You’ve got to forget about everything, ‘” McCoy told him. “‘You’ve got nothing to gain. You’ve got nothing to lose. You’ve got nothing to prove. Just go out there and practice.’”
Gilbert nodded. What the heck, right? It couldn’t get any worse. At this point, pretty much every single person in the stands and every single person watching at home and probably every single person in the Texas locker room thought that the game was over because if Garrett Gilbert was not capable of completing a screen pass, he wasn’t going to lead a historic comeback.
Then Gilbert went out in the third quarter and he completed a pass. It was for just 3 yards but they were positive yards. It felt like a weight went off his shoulder. A few plays later he hit Marquis Goodwin on a short pass that the speedy wideout turned into a 39-yard gain.
“I started to see the field better,” Gilbert said. “I started to complete some passes.”
On the sideline, wearing a headset, Colt McCoy kept screaming encouragement. He kept telling his replacement he could do this.
Near the end of the quarter Gilbert threw a slant for a 44-yard touchdown and jumped around in joy. In the fourth quarter he did it again, throwing a beautiful-28 yard TD. Then he whipped one into Dan Buckner’s arms for the 2-point conversion.
Alabama 24, Texas 21.
The game that was seemingly lost was now a three-point contest. The Texas defense held again. Alabama punted and with 3:14 remaining, Garrett Gilbert walked out on the field, the same field he played so poorly on, huddled up his teammates, the same ones who couldn’t be faulted in doubting his ability, and told them they were about to drive down the field to either tie or win the BCS title game.
“We’re going to take it down there,” Gilbert said.
They believed him.
From the sideline McCoy saw the blitz coming from Gilbert’s blind side. Gilbert said he felt it too. Alabama linebacker Eryk Anders was coming fast, faster than Gilbert realized. Anders crushed Gilbert, springing the ball loose. For a split second, before he got buried into the turf, Gilbert saw the comeback, the game, the championship bounce away.
He prayed one of his guys would get it. They didn’t. Alabama did on Texas’ 3-yard line. A few plays later the Tide scored. Later they scored again. The game ended with Alabama taking a knee and Nick Saban getting a Gatorade bath and a crimson-and-white confetti shower.
McCoy got run down by ABC’s Lisa Salters, who wanted to talk to him on live television. As they stood and waited for the producer to throw it to them, McCoy’s eyes glazed over, the nightmare on top of the nightmare sinking in. When she finally asked him a question, he barely could muster an answer.
By then Gilbert was walking toward the UT locker room, his heartbroken teammates running up and patting him on the back, trying to tell him to pick his head up. This wasn’t on him, they said. Be proud of what you did, they whispered.
He’d thrown four interceptions though. There was that disastrous fumble. And the first half where he’d done nothing, where the hole had been dug.
It all kept running through his mind, he said, and suddenly the emotional roller coaster, the wildest four hours of Garrett Gilbert’s life hit him all at once.
He started to cry.
Colt McCoy was standing in front of his locker for the last time as a Texas Longhorn. He didn’t want it to end. Certainly not like this, his right arm hanging limp, another team celebrating across the way.
“I’ve given everything I had to Texas,” he said. “I’ve given everything I had to college football. I did everything I could. I worked my whole career to be put on this stage. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would be taken away like that.”
Down the row of lockers Gilbert was crushed, spent and exhausted. He even looked a little confused. “It hasn’t sunk in yet,” he said. He too couldn’t believe this had happened. Not the McCoy injury – “he never gets hurt.” Not his early struggles. Not his comeback. Not the final futility.
The two quarterbacks, both sons of Texas who dreamed of leading Texas to a championship, shared the same pain and disappointment. Yet where there was finality for the senior, there was a glimmer of hope for the freshman.
“This was the end,” McCoy said, shaking his head.
“This is something to build on,” Gilbert offered up.
This is the losing locker room of the biggest game. This is stars coming and stars going, fortunes rising and careers falling. This is injuries and opportunities; worst-case scenarios and near impossible comebacks. This is two quarterbacks on one team dealing with the same overwhelming night where both of them felt like they’d lost everything.