With Alabama’s victory podium being wheeled onto the field, and the confetti blasters primed to spray flecks of crimson and white, Garrett Gilbert began his long walk back to the Texas locker room.
A year ago, he was the most sought-after high school quarterback in America. Now he was struggling to hold back tears, his eyes red-rimmed and moist with camera crews following him off the field. It took all he had left to raise an arm and flash the “hook ‘em horns” sign. As backup to Colt McCoy, Gilbert had been warned that he was “one play away.” Then again, as a freshman understudy to college football’s most decorated and durable quarterback, what was he to think?
“Coach prepared me to play,” said Gilbert. “But you can’t imagine anything like this happening.”
Alabama won the national championship before 94,906 fans at the Rose Bowl on Thursday night. With a final score of 37-21, it was an interesting game, if not a very good one.
That’s no reflection on Nick Saban or his team. There have been four BCS title games now, producing four champions from the SEC. Saban himself becomes the first coach to win titles at different schools — in a span of just six seasons. He has some spectacular defenders, like tackle Marcell Dareus, an impossibly mobile 300-pounder. He has ‘Bama’s first-ever Heisman winner, Mark Ingram, one of two — two! — backs to rush for more than 100 yards against Texas.
“I’ve never been prouder of a group of guys,” said Saban. “ … Most of us don’t realize how difficult it is … the hard work …”
Of course, it’s a long season. But it can change, irrevocably, in a moment. For Texas and Alabama, that moment is without dispute. It came with 10:54 remaining in the first quarter, when McCoy was replaced by Gilbert.
“It certainly changed the game,” said Saban.
As the evening began, Saban’s team took the field with what the coach called “a lot of anxiety.” The first six minutes saw ‘Bama penalized, fooled and pushed around. There was a false start, a muffed kickoff, and a sack of quarterback Greg McElroy that gave the Tide a third down and 23 from their own 20. Then Saban — who obviously had too much time to prepare — had punter P.J. Fitzgerald throw a pass, which was intercepted. “We were about to dominate the game,” said McCoy.
The first quarter ended with Texas up 6-0. With the benefit of hindsight, however, it had already been decided. The end came when McCoy was stopped for no gain on the Alabama 11-yard line.
“I really didn’t try to hit him that hard,” said Dareus. “I didn’t want to hurt him.”
Actually, it seemed an entirely unremarkable play. McCoy wasn’t staggered or hobbled, and left the field on his own power, in his own even stride. College football’s winningest quarterback isn’t a very big guy, but he’s never missed a start.
“Never been hurt in four years,” he said. “I take shot after shot after shot, every game.”
McCoy can deal with pain. This wasn’t pain, though. This was something different. “I had no strength in my arm,” he said.
Was it a separation? he was asked. A contusion? A dislocation?
“I never felt anything like this,” he said. “I don’t really know what it is. I just know I can’t throw a ball. My shoulder’s dead.”
It felt as if he’d been sleeping on his arm. He went into the locker room and tried to toss the ball to his father, who also happened to be his high school coach.
The arm, he said, “was like a noodle. … We iced it for a long time. It just never came back.”
Meanwhile, the press box PA announcer said McCoy would be evaluated “at the half.” By then, the score was 24-6. Gilbert was 1-for-10 with two interceptions (one coming on a shovel pass that Dareus returned for a touchdown) for minus-4 yards.
“It was like we won the game at halftime,” said Saban.
That’s what it felt like. Still, Texas managed to come back, and eventually, Gilbert found a rhythm. You could see why he was he most highly recruited quarterback of 2009. He began to find Jordan Shipley, connecting on 44-yard touchdown. In the fourth quarter, he hit Shipley again for a 28-yard score. The two-point conversion made the score 24-21.
“What Garrett did is one of the hardest things; give him all the credit in the world — a freshman stepping in and throwing two touchdowns,” said McCoy. “He settled down and got to work. Our receivers were getting open every play.”
Then Alabama linebacker Eryk Anders came on a blitz from Gilbert’s blind side, smashing the ball loose.
“Made a bad read there,” said Gilbert. “That’s on me. Obviously, it’s a humbling experience.”
‘Bama scored a few plays later. Gilbert threw another interception. Then Bama scored again. “Why did this have to happen when I was most needed?” asked McCoy. “… never in my wildest dreams …”
Like the freshman, Colt McCoy had come upon a scenario never imagined. And like the freshman, he was holding back tears.