AUSTIN, Texas — Colt McCoy says he’s growing up. Five games as the Texas quarterback will do that to a freshman pretty quick.
Oklahoma’s Paul Thompson was already grown up. The senior just thought he’d be catching touchdown passes this season instead of throwing them.
Freshman or senior, the two have 10 starts at quarterback between them, giving neither the No. 7 Longhorns (4-1) nor the No. 14 Sooners (3-1) much experience going into Saturday’s matchup in Dallas.
And young or old, the intensity of this game can make or break players not ready to handle a Cotton Bowl crowd split down the middle in crimson and burnt orange.
“You can’t get shaken up or rattled,” McCoy said. “I’ve thought about this a long time, but it’s not about me. It’s about my teammates.”
It wasn’t that long ago McCoy figured he’d still be on the sideline for this one, watching Vince Young lead the defending national champions.
But after Young left early for the NFL in January, McCoy won the starting job over freshman Jevan Snead. With a 56-7 win over North Texas, he was the first freshman quarterback to win a Texas season opener since Bobby Layne in 1944.
A fresh-faced kid a month ago, McCoy is slowly taking on the look of a grizzled veteran. He has 10 touchdown passes and two interceptions in his five starts, none of them bigger than a 24-7 loss to No. 1 Ohio State.
McCoy threw for a score but also had a costly interception against the Buckeyes. It was trial by the fiercest of fires, and Texas lost for the first time in 22 games.
“The most important thing I learned,” McCoy said, “is that I don’t like to lose.”
Coaches and teammates say McCoy grows as a leader and a player every week. He commands a veteran offensive huddle and is reading defenses better.
Asked the biggest difference in McCoy since Ohio State, coach Mack Brown said, “Swagger.”
“I’ve never seen a more confident and consistent freshman than Colt,” he said.
Brown has stopped waiting for his freshman to have a bad game.
“I kept thinking there’s got to be a dropoff,” he said. “Every freshman has one. But he’s been the same.”
Thompson’s path to this point took longer and took him to the far edges of the football field.
He grew up in the Austin suburb of Leander, a short drive to the Texas campus. Brown recruited him as an athlete. The Longhorns were already signing a quarterback and didn’t need another.
“It was Vince,” Brown said. “He played pretty good for us.”
He went north when Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops told him he could play quarterback for the Sooners. Playing behind Nate Hybl and Heisman Trophy winner Jason White, he saw mop-up duty in 2002-2003 and redshirted in 2004.
By 2005, he had to fight off highly touted quarterback recruit Rhett Bomar to earn his first start in the season opener. Some Oklahoma fans thought he could be as good as Young. It was his chance to shine.
It was a disaster. The Sooners lost at home to TCU.
Stoops replaced Thompson with the hotshot Bomar and sent Thompson out to wide receiver. He started three games and caught 11 passes.
He expected to stay there until Bomar got kicked off the team for violating NCAA rules before the start of fall camp.
Left in a bind, Stoops moved Thompson back under center. Like McCoy, he has been steady but unspectacular with eight touchdowns and three interceptions.
“I definitely didn’t see this coming,” Thompson said. “My mind was set on receiver and that’s how I thought I was going to finish my career here.”
McCoy has seen how a young quarterback can get roughed up in the Cotton Bowl. Texas’ defense teed off on Bomar with three sacks and numerous knockdowns last year in a 45-12 Longhorns victory.
“They’re going to be fast,” McCoy said. “They’re going to be flying to the football.”
He also learned there’s little margin for error against the Sooners. Texas’ five-game losing streak against Oklahoma from 2000-2004 proved that.
“If you want to win in this game,” McCoy said, “you’re going to have to play almost as good as you can.”