As the University of Texas band blared another refrain of Texas Fight, as the burnt-orange-clad faithful in the stands tossed roses onto the turf, Longhorns quarterback Colt McCoy gazed up at the aircraft-carrier-sized video screen, cracked a smile and shook his head. "Did it have to be this close?" he said to no one in particular as he looked at the score—Texas 13, Nebraska 12—on the 2,098-inch HD screen that towers over the field at Cowboys Stadium. In truth, little this season has come easily for the Longhorns, who earned a trip to the BCS championship game last Saturday night by virtue of their nail-biting victory over the Cornhuskers in the Big 12 championship game.
"To be 13--0 you have to win in different ways—you've seen Alabama block field goals in the last second," said Texas coach Mack Brown, defending a team that, nine days after surviving a 49--39 shootout against Texas A&M, was held to 202 yards of total offense and needed a 46-yard field goal from Hunter Lawrence after a second was put back on the clock. "This game was all about defense," Brown said. "If this had been the SEC, people would call it a beautiful game."
Sorry, Mack, but there was nothing beautiful about Texas's win, which left many wondering about the Longhorns' worthiness of an invite to Pasadena. McCoy's shaky performance also sent the Heisman Trophy race into chaos. With Florida quarterback Tim Tebow having struggled earlier in the day in the SEC championship game, the stage was set for McCoy, the Heisman runner-up a year ago, to seize control. The senior strutted into the Dallas Cowboys' new home as the front-runner for the stiff-armed statue, having thrown for 1,791 yards with a 16-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio over his last six games, capped by a performance against A&M in which he passed for 304 yards, ran for a career-high 175 yards and accounted for five touchdowns. But facing constant pressure against the nation's ninth-ranked defense, McCoy completed 20 of 36 passes for 186 yards and threw three interceptions. He was sacked nine times. One of his best moments? A 38-yard punt out of the shotgun that pinned Nebraska at its one-yard line midway through the third quarter.
The ferocious 6'4", 300-pound defensive tackle who lined up across from McCoy was largely to blame. In the week leading up to the game, it seemed that all Brown could talk about was containing Ndamukong Suh, yet the senior nearly single-handedly took down Texas, with 12 tackles (seven for losses, including 4½ sacks), despite being double-teamed on almost every down. Said Brown, "I wanted to find him after the game and wish him good luck in the NFL. Because I don't want to see him anymore."
With the clock ticking down, it was Suh who shoved McCoy as he fired the pass that nearly cost Lawrence the opportunity to attempt the game-winner. In a case of clock management that was questionable at best, the Longhorns, still with a timeout, had allowed the clock to run down, and after McCoy slowly rolled to his right and sailed the pass out-of-bounds, the clock read zero. A sea of red rushed the field as Nebraska players and coaches celebrated wildly. But a replay review ruled—correctly—that McCoy's pass had hit a stadium railing with one second left. Nebraska called time to try to freeze Lawrence, so holder Jordan Shipley used the moment to whisper a verse from the Book of Jeremiah into his kicker's ear: "Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord."
McCoy may have thrown away his Heisman chances and nearly cost his team the opportunity to play for its second national championship in five years, but the Longhorns still have much trust in their senior leader. McCoy, who with 45 victories is the winningest quarterback in Division I-A history, has come a long way since he arrived in Austin in 2005 as an undersized freshman from Tuscola, Texas. At the Rose Bowl in January 2006, just before Vince Young took the field to direct the legendary drive that beat USC and delivered Texas its first national championship since 1970, he turned to the redshirt at his side, slapped his helmet, and said, "Take notes. Your moment will come too."
McCoy didn't exactly have that moment on Saturday. The Longhorns hope he is saving it for their return visit to Pasadena.