Texas lost title, found QB (cont.)
As a pro, the elder Gilbert is best known for being the backup quarterback on the losing team in four Super Bowls (thrice with Buffalo and once with San Diego). So, as his son prepared last December to back up McCoy on college football's biggest stage, Gale offered the three-word nugget of advice he lived by as an NFL backup.
You never know.
Even after Alabama defensive end Marcell Dareus smashed McCoy, turning McCoy's throwing arm to jelly, Gilbert didn't know. Everyone in the stadium, including Gilbert, assumed McCoy would be back in a few minutes. The little guy had been pulverized so many times in his career, but he almost always came back. When Gilbert took over the Texas huddle on the Alabama 11-yard line, he had no idea he was taking over for good.
"Maybe he lost feeling in his arm," Gilbert remembered thinking. "He'll get it back. Let's get us into the end zone, then let Colt take it back."
Texas settled for a field goal on that first possession. More plays passed. McCoy still wasn't ready. By then, Gale's words had to be echoing in Gilbert's head. You never know. As the second quarter began, the younger Gilbert shifted his focus. He wasn't a caretaker anymore. "I've got to take these guys in," he remembered thinking, "because Colt might not be coming back."
With the defense playing well, Texas coaches called plays from a limited menu to protect Gilbert. Down 11 late in the first half, Davis chose one of the safest plays he could: a shovel pass. Dareus, the same player who hammered McCoy, plucked the ball from the air and ran it back for a touchdown. "Other than a draw play, that's the most conservative play we can call with 15 seconds left to try to get a field goal," Brown said. "Even that went wrong."
At halftime, the team's medical staff confirmed what Gilbert and the coaches had already guessed. McCoy wouldn't be back. In the locker room, Brown faced Gilbert. The training wheels would come off in the second half. "We're going to go play," Brown said. "We're going to start you slow here in the third quarter. We're going to get you comfortable, but you're going to have to play."
In the stands, Kim Gilbert saw her oldest son playing, but it didn't seem real. With so much swirling around him, he seemed as calm as the kid who tossed those 138 touchdown passes at Lake Travis. "I wouldn't be the same in the same situation," Kim Gilbert said. "I don't know how he does it. He just gets into a zone and manages to stay calm."
That calm helped Gilbert in Pasadena, but he had to shed some if it this offseason to show his teammates he could lead. Gilbert isn't as nakedly emotional as McCoy. He just isn't wired that way. "You don't have to be a rah-rah guy," Gale Gilbert said. "You can lead in other ways." Sometimes, though, it takes a little rah-rah to rally the troops.
One day during the Longhorns' summer seven-on-seven drills, cornerback Aaron Williams hit Gilbert with a stream of trash-talk. Before, Gilbert had just turned and walked away. This time, he didn't. He fired right back at Williams. No one seems to remember exactly what Gilbert said, but his offensive -- and defensive -- teammates got the message. This is Gilbert's team.
That doesn't mean Brown wants Gilbert trying to win games by himself. McCoy's injury, as well as the scare the Longhorns received from Nebraska in the Big 12 title game, taught Brown that he had placed too much of the responsibility for his team's success in McCoy's hands. Brown realized he had ignored the advice given to him years earlier by former North Carolina coach Bill Dooley.
"Don't ever let the health or the individual performance of one player determine whether you're going to win or lose the game," Brown remembered Dooley saying.
So Brown and Davis massaged the offense. They added more downhill runs from under center, which should open up more play-action opportunities for Gilbert and keep fire-breathing blitzers at bay. They have demanded more from their line and their backs, who no longer can rely on McCoy to bail them out with his fleet feet. They have challenged a receiving corps that must find a way to replace Shipley's production.
While Brown and Davis love Gilbert's arm, they don't want him to feel he has to carry the entire offense. "I've got a lot of playmakers around me," Gilbert said. "The goal is just to get it to them and let them do what they do best."
It's up to Gilbert to deliver. Given all the attention he's received, it's easy to forget that he just turned 19 and has played in exactly one college game in which the outcome was in doubt. "The game is still going to be really, really fast the first snap of the Rice game," Gale Gilbert said.
Still, Gilbert never will face more pressure than he faced on that night in Pasadena when he showed no fear and told Davis exactly what he saw. "I don't think there is any question having to play in the national championship game is a benefit in the grand scheme of things," Davis said. "It wasn't that night. But today, it is a benefit."
Once the pain of the loss subsided, even Gilbert finally saw the burnt orange lining. "Being able to be on that stage in that situation, I learned to have confidence in myself from now on," Gilbert said. "I can do it."
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