Texas lost title game, but found quarterback in Garrett Gilbert
Gilbert had thrown 26 collegiate passes when he was thrust into BCS championship
He fumbled and threw four picks, but stage will never be bigger than that night
Gilbert's facing enormous expectations, but has emerged as a leader for Texas
AUSTIN, Texas -- Greg Davis has spent 33 years of his 37-year coaching life working from the press box. Since he can't look his quarterbacks in the eyes, the Texas offensive coordinator has fine-tuned his ears to detect every nuance in his quarterback's inflection when the signal-caller's voice comes tumbling through Davis' headset after each offensive series. Davis can hear confident. He can hear scared.
That night in Pasadena, Davis would have understood a little fear. It was the national championship game, for goodness sakes. The freshman who spent the season behind the living legend certainly didn't expect to play any significant snaps against an Alabama defense known for gobbling up inexperienced quarterbacks. But Davis didn't hear scared when Garrett Gilbert's barely post-pubescent voice crawled into his ear.
In all those years as the eye in the sky, Davis also has picked up another trick. If he needs to diagnose what went wrong when he called Gun-Right-Jack-Scat-814-Choice-Go, Davis knows better than to ask the quarterback if the safety moved to centerfield. The kid will always answer "Yes." Instead, Davis asks a simpler question. "What did you see?"
Well, Garrett, what did you see?
After a play in which Gilbert overthrew an open Jordan Shipley: "Coach, I knew they were in cover-one. I knew we were going to have a shot. I just missed it."
After a 44-yard touchdown to Shipley in the third quarter: "Cross blitz, coach. Free safety hung on X."
After a fourth-quarter play in which Shipley and Gilbert sight-adjusted to an Alabama blitz and connected for a 28-yard touchdown: "I knew I was hot to the left. I had to get it up quickly."
That score put Texas, playing behind a quarterback who had arrived on campus only six months earlier, within a field goal of the Crimson Tide. Alabama had knocked out Colt McCoy, but the Tide hadn't knocked out the Longhorns thanks to their strapping young backup. Gilbert had struggled early -- coach Mack Brown had to burn a timeout immediately after McCoy's shoulder injury because Gilbert couldn't find his helmet -- but he had settled, and when Texas got the ball back on its own seven-yard line with three minutes, 14 seconds remaining, Gilbert knew he could lead the Longhorns to a national title.
Then Alabama linebacker Eryk Anders appeared out of thin air and hammered Gilbert. The ball squirted free. Alabama's Courtney Upshaw recovered. The dream died.
Gilbert probably should have been pleased with his performance. Entering the BCS title game, he had thrown 26 passes on the season -- all in garbage time. He hadn't played a significant down all season, but still nearly took his team to a national title. Instead, Gilbert blamed himself for the fumble and the four interceptions he threw. If he hadn't turned the ball over, he told Brown after the game, a Longhorn would be cradling a crystal football. That moment told Brown all he needed to know about the player who will take over the Texas offense this season.
"He may be back on that stage, but he'll never be on a bigger stage than that one," Brown said. "He handled it with a lot of composure and was disappointed that he didn't win. I think that's who he is."
Unlike other quarterbacks who will take over high-powered offenses this season, Gilbert isn't a mystery. His character-revealing turn in the title game didn't end with a win, but it did give the Longhorns an idea of what kind of leader will assume command of their offense.
Gilbert is the anti-Colt. McCoy came to Austin from tiny Tuscola, Texas, weighing 175 pounds. After a stellar career against small-school competition, McCoy had to prove he could play against elite defenders. He did that, earning the starting job as a redshirt freshman in 2006 and winning an FBS-record 45 games as the starter.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Gilbert succeeded former Kansas quarterback Todd Reesing at Austin's Lake Travis High and led the Cavaliers to a 39-4 record and two state titles in three years as a starter. In 2008, he won the Gatorade national Player of the Year award and finished his high school career as the alltime leading passer (12,540 yards) in a state that breeds quarterbacks as well as it smokes beef brisket.
Gilbert enters Texas with a pedigree more similar to that of Chris Simms, the prototypical pro-style slinger who most in Austin feel never lived up to his potential. Unlike McCoy in 2006, Gilbert will take his first snap against Rice next weekend under the weight of Simmsesque expectations. "The expectation of Colt grew while he was here," Brown said. "The expectation of Garrett is here, and it's here immediately."
That doesn't bother Gilbert, who has lived in Austin since age 6 and who understands the demands placed upon the Texas quarterback. "The expectations are always going to be through the roof," Gilbert said. "I'm happy about that. I don't want to be at a place where the expectations are low."
After coaching Gilbert for more than a year, Brown believes Gilbert can handle the pressure. "He's got a great presence about him," Brown said. "When he walks in a room, everybody knows he's in the room. He's definitely got the quarterback thing."
Gilbert comes by that honestly. His father, Gale, played quarterback at Cal -- he beat Garrett's idol, John Elway, in the famous Cal-Stanford band game in 1982 -- and played eight seasons in the NFL. During a family trip one summer when Garrett was in high school, Gale even tried to convince Garrett to check out Berkeley, but Gilbert wanted nothing to do with any school other than Texas. "He had zero interest," Gale said. "If Texas offered, that was what he was doing."