The Tide really did turn quickly
Deep in the heart of Texas, chins went to chests. Same thing in that portion of the Rose Bowl crowd of 94,906 who were there to root for Texas.
The people in the burnt-orange shirts had just been singed in the worst way imaginable.
Just 4 minutes 6 seconds had been played in this, college football’s national championship game, better known as the BCS Bowl.
Already, wild things had been happening.
Alabama, coached by a fairly conservative man named Nick Saban, had tried a fake punt and pass on fourth down and 23 from its own 20-yard line. Stunning decision. More stunning was that Texas intercepted it, Blake Gideon reaching high and pulling it down.
Texas moved to the 11, and Texas’ star quarterback, the aptly named Colt McCoy, scrambled to his left, took a benign-looking hit and was stopped for no gain. There seemed to be some confusion. Then McCoy, who was a Heisman Trophy candidate the last two seasons and had taken all but a handful of snaps in Texas’ 13-0 season, motioned toward Coach Mack Brown and the Longhorns’ bench. He did so with his left arm because his right arm was hanging limply at his side.
Game over. Texas’ offensive gun was out of bullets.
In Tuscola, Texas, hometown of McCoy, population maybe 800, one could only imagine the sound of a pin dropping. They had watched for four years, chests swelling with pride through all 45 wins he had engineered.
And now this . . .
It had become part of the legend, how McCoy had stood on the sideline, this same sideline, four years ago as senior quarterback Vince Young stepped over USC and into the end zone in the last minute and won the national title. Young had told him something along the lines of, “Watch what I do tonight, kid. You’ll get your turn.”
And so McCoy did. For 4 minutes 6 seconds.
McCoy headed to the locker room, right arm still dangling at his side. Onto the field came Garrett Gilbert, a freshman. Nobody knows if McCoy had sidled up to him before the kickoff and said, “Watch, kid. You’ll get your turn.”
Gilbert got his turn way too early.
“He’s standing there on the sideline, cold, not expecting to play,” Brown said afterward. “And then he’s in. I can’t even imagine . . . “
Understandably, Gilbert looked lost. The genes were fine, the track record excellent. He is the son of former Cal quarterback Gale Gilbert, who also had an eight-year NFL career. Young Gilbert won his last 30 games in high school, which means that with Texas’ 13-0 record coming into this game, he had a 43-0 streak going.
But this was the ultimate stage and Gilbert was the ultimate babe in the woods. At halftime, he had one completion in 10 attempts for minus-four yards.
He also had tried a shovel pass, deep in his own territory, with time running out in the second period. It bounced around in the middle of a scrum and somehow popped into the hands of defensive end Marcell Dareus, who headed for the end zone. The only one with a real shot at him was Gilbert, who tried to tackle the 6-foot-4, 296-pound Dareus and came away with a face full of stiff arm.
Oh, by the way, it had been Dareus who made the hit on McCoy. Completely legal, absolutely crucial. The game-changer.
Talk about adding insult to injury. The Texas defense had hung tough, perhaps waiting for word on McCoy, who was being examined in the locker room. It was one of the best defenses in the country, one that had given up an average of just 66 yards rushing per game. They are the pride of Will Muschamp, defensive coordinator and designated coach-in-waiting at Texas whenever the 58-year-old Brown decides to step down.
Talking both specifically about that defense, and his team in general, Brown said afterward, “I was proud of them. They could have gotten frustrated and quit. They didn’t.”
Nor did Gilbert. He got Texas back in the game with two touchdown passes, eventually looking like somebody suddenly slapped in the face, coming out of shock.
Clearly, in the second half, the hope of a return by McCoy was gone. Afterward, he said, “I have no pain. I have taken that hit over and over in my career. I’m not in pain. I just can’t feel my arm.”
So Texas, and Gilbert, did its best to make up for lost time.
The Longhorns should be commended, and were afterward by Alabama and Saban, for cutting the lead to 24-21 and getting the ball back with just over three minutes left and a chance to drive for a tying field goal. But then linebacker Eryk Anders blew in from the weak side, blasted Gilbert from behind as he was about to pass, and the ensuing fumble recovery was the real end to what had become inevitable the moment McCoy left.
With 26 seconds left, the total celebration began. Brown sprinted to the center of the field to shake Saban’s hand, and the red-clad thousands on the west side of the Rose Bowl stood and waved the red-and-white hankies. Alabama was national champion. Joy was theirs.
Across the way, dressed in orange, the other half of the crowd shuffled out, chins down. They had come with 60 minutes of hope in mind and had ended up with just 4:06.