NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- All night, the lowlight reel raced through Chris Hall's mind. In the Texas center's twisted memories, giants in red jerseys blasted through Texas offensive linemen and crushed quarterback Colt McCoy in a continuous loop. The Longhorns gave up nine sacks in the Big 12 Championship Game, but by the time Hall watched the video on Dec. 6, it felt as if they'd allowed 90. But as strange as it may sound, watching video of Cornhuskers tackle Ndamukong Suh tossing McCoy like a rag doll made Hall feel better.
"To be honest, it was kind of a relief," Hall said. "I just kind of had it running through my head that night, so I just got in there and watched it the next day. Obviously, it was hard to watch, but I think it was profitable to say, 'I messed up here' and 'I can fix that.'"
When Texas faces Alabama on Thursday, the Longhorns will have had 33 days to fix the issues that left McCoy lying in a heap on the Cowboys Stadium turf. They'll face another dominant defense, but this one will attack them in an entirely new way. McCoy knows that, but he also knows another lesson learned from the Nebraska game: In spite of the protection problems, Texas still emerged victorious. "Coming out of the Nebraska game, I really think that was a moment for our team that really brought us together," McCoy said. "Because not very many things went our way, and ultimately in the end we found a way to win."
Still, the Longhorns know they'll have to protect better to win the national title. Nebraska's offense presented little challenge to the Texas defense. Alabama's offense, which features Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Mark Ingram, will score points, so McCoy can't afford to spend much of the night on his back.
Even as the nightmare unfolded at the Big 12 title game, McCoy didn't scream at his linemen. He didn't think that would help. "My role is not to get in their face, chew them out," McCoy said. "That's what the coaches are for. I've learned that through the past four years. As a leader, I'm the encourager. I'm the motivator. I'm the guy that comes to the sideline and says, hey, it's all right. Win your battle. Don't worry about what's happened. That's past."
That attitude, and the respect the Longhorns' linemen have for their quarterback, has pushed the Texas line this past month to correct the issues it faced against Nebraska. If the shame of the Nebraska game produces a more disciplined line, then all the misery was worth it. Because discipline will be key Thursday. Against Nebraska, McCoy called all the correct protections. The Longhorns just got physically whipped by Suh, Jared Crick, Barry Turner and Pierre Allen. Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart pointed that out Sunday when asked how the Crimson Tide might duplicate the Cornhuskers' pass-rushing success.
Smart's answer? "Recruit hard," he said. "Get Ndamukong."
Smart explained that few teams have the sheer talent up front to do what Nebraska did. "It wasn't that what they did was so special," Smart said. "They played really well. I don't think it was so much scheme. They've got some good players up front. They play hard up front. They covered them, and a lot of those sacks were coverage sacks."
The Longhorns know Alabama will attack any weak spots exposed by the Huskers. And unlike against Nebraska, when the greatest threat (Suh) lined up over the center on almost every play, opponents never know from where Alabama's greatest threat will originate. "Turning on [Alabama's] defense is like watching a horror film," McCoy said. "You understand how well-coached they are. They don't make mistakes. They're in the right place at the right time. They disguise their blitzes. They come from depth. They overload one side and come from the other."
That puts the onus on McCoy, who must adjust the protection scheme to anticipate the pressure. If he fails to notice cornerback Javier Arenas creeping toward the tackle box and Arenas zooms past blockers for a sack, that's McCoy's fault. Though the degree of difficulty is higher for McCoy, so too are the odds that Alabama will leave itself vulnerable and allow McCoy to make a big play. "[Nebraska] is a simpler defense," Smart said. "They run what they run, so you've got to beat them. We mix it up a lot, do a lot of different things, change it up. We probably make more mistakes than Nebraska."
The Texas line knows all about mistakes. The largest Longhorns have been reminded of their mistakes every day since Dec. 5. They have tried not to dwell on them, though. "We don't really need negative motivation to win a national championship," tackle Adam Ulatoski said. "We have the national championship right in front of us."
McCoy believes his blockers have made the necessary corrections to turn a nine-sack nightmare into a teachable moment. Now it's up to everyone in burnt orange to prove that on the field. "It has to do with trust," McCoy said. "I've had 13 games to trust my teammates, trust my coaches, trust myself. Alabama's defense is going to be the best we've ever played. From watching film, I fully expect them to be the best defense I've played against in four years. So you've got to go out there and trust each other."