By Joe Posnanski
January 08, 2010

PASADENA, Calif. -- Someone asked Texas coach Mack Brown a pretty basic question on Wednesday, the day before his Longhorns played Alabama in the BCS Championship. And Brown gave a surprising answer. The question was what he thinks about when he's lying awake the night before a big game.

The answer that first came to mind: "Are they going to onside kick to start the game?"

That seems to say a lot about how coaches think. Onside kick to start the game? That's what a coach worries about late at night when the demons shriek? But, yes, it seems that coaches do worry about the most ridiculous things. They dream about catastrophes. They see doom around every corner and vampires in every dark alley; they hear ghosts in the attic. This is part (a big part) of what it is to be a football coach -- always expecting the worst to happen.

Sure, this is why coaches, more often than not, punt on fourth-and-one. It is why they surround their practice facilities with barbed wire fences. It is why they run draw plays on third-and-long. It is why they go into the prevent defense. It is why they answer questions with the reluctance of an 8-year-old in trouble. Fans may boo, sportswriters may roll their eyes, talk-radio-show hosts may rant for hours.

But none of them sees disaster whenever they close their eyes. Football coaches do.

And so we find ourselves at the end of the first half of Thursday's BCS National Championship Game. This was a strange, uneven, confused game. The reason was that during Texas' first possession, while deep in Alabama territory, Tide defensive end Marcell Dareus hit Texas quarterback Colt McCoy -- who many pegged as the single most important player in the game. It was a clean hit, but that didn't make it any less savage. McCoy badly hurt his shoulder. And, after a month of hype leading into this game, nothing made sense. Everyone had an idea of what this game would look like with Colt McCoy in the game; nobody had any clue what it would look like with him out of it.

Texas took a 6-0 lead -- the Longhorns were inspired, they recovered a pooch kick, they were playing at their peak. But then it became clear to everyone on both teams that Texas' backup quarterback, true freshman Garret Gilbert, was (justifiably) scared out of his mind. Gilbert had not thrown a pass in a game since before Thanksgiving, and now he was playing the awe-inspiring Alabama defense in front of 94,000 people at the title game and ... he just wasn't ready for that. The game went about as you might expect. Texas' offense went dead. Alabama's offense found a rhythm. The Crimson Tide made a couple of big plays against the stout but disappointed Texas defense. Alabama took a 14-6 lead.

And then, with 29 seconds left in the half, Alabama kicked a field goal to add to the lead, making the score 17-6. It had to be hard for Texas players and coaches to watch Alabama just grind them into submission. But there really wasn't much to be done about it. McCoy was in so many ways the soul of this Texas team. The Longhorns clearly lost all hope of winning when they realized he would not play. All Texas coaches could really hope to do was get to halftime and try to infuse some belief and energy back into the players.

The kickoff was returned to the Texas 28. There were 23 seconds left in the half. There was no reason to think Texas, with its backup quarterback, was going to score against Alabama with 23 seconds left. The Longhorns just wanted to run out the clock. Texas' Tre' Newton took a handoff and ran for nine yards -- enough to discourage Alabama from calling timeout. The clock ticked: 17, 16, 15 ... and then it stopped.

Texas had called timeout.

Texas ... had ... called ... timeout.

Inexplicable? No, that word doesn't quite cover it. Mack Brown called timeout. Why? Was he thinking his team could score against Alabama in the last 15 seconds of the half from his own 37? His quarterback was 1-for-9 with an interception for minus-four yards.

Well, anyway, who notices clock management at the end of halves? No, the timeout made no sense. But, hey, so what? Texas would undoubtedly pull out some safe play -- soon it would be halftime. There was no reason to get up in arms about it all.

Then, Gilbert dropped back and, as the rush came on, he indeed tried to throw the safest pass in the game: the shovel pass. Some call it the shuttle pass. Others the shuffle pass. Whatever it's called, nothing bad can happen. It can't be intercepted. If the ball is dropped, it's counted as an incomplete pass. It's safe.

Only, Mack Brown is a football coach. And he knows -- knows with every fiber of his being -- that NO PLAY is safe. Are they going to onside kick to start the game? No play is safe, and Gilbert threw the pass and it was bobbled and then, suddenly, it was in the arms of Alabama's Marcell Dareus. No! The same Marcell Dareus who had hit Colt McCoy. No! The same Marcell Dareus who had become an Alabama sensation before he ever showed up on campus because fans had watched a video of him working out on YouTube. Alabama fans are passionate enough to get excited about a player based on a workout video on YouTube. The workouts showed that Dareus is a freakish athlete.

And then Dareus was running toward the end zone with the ball. Texas players lunged for him, but Dareus was spinning and ducking and pulling away. He looked like some kind of superhero. "I kind of blanked out," he would say. "I was doing moves I didn't think I could do."

When he was done, he was in the end zone, and it was a touchdown. He threw the ball in celebration. There were three seconds left on the clock.

And suddenly, it all became clear. That timeout that seemed like a bit of goofy but harmless clock mismanagement was, in fact, insanity. That shovel pass that seemed like a pointless but safe play actually was catastrophic. Suddenly, Mack Brown and his coaches had gone from bumbling to pulling off one of the most dramatic coaching blunders in big time bowl history. There were 15 SECONDS LEFT. They were NOT GOING TO SCORE. They were not really even TRYING TO SCORE. And they GAVE ALABAMA A TOUCHDOWN. What could have been going through their minds?

Mack Brown would later say he and his coaches were just hoping to pop a play. But what is much more likely true: They lost focus. They broke concentration. They got sloppy. And that sloppiness changed the whole rest of the game. Alabama tried to protect the big lead, and got sluggish. Texas, in desperation, asked Gilbert to grow up fast, and he did throw two touchdown passes and a two-point conversion to allow Texas to improbably pull within a field goal, 24-21.

Alabama then turned up the intensity again, forced a fumble and two interceptions in the final four minutes, and won going away.

What do we take away from the game? It's hard to say. Alabama does have a great defense and Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram is a fabulous runner. The Crimson Tide are worthy national champs. Texas does have a great defense, and you do sense that if McCoy had played, the game would have had a very different look. That's not to say Texas would have won ... but the game would have had a very different look. Alabama coach Nick Saban is obviously a great football coach -- and the SEC has now won four straight national titles.

And, finally, there were those last few seconds of the half. Coaches worry endlessly -- needlessly, it often seems -- about little breakdowns, small failures, fluke plays. Well, I guess that's why. Mack Brown is a terrific football coach, but in the big moment he forgot the cardinal rule of being a football coach: bad stuff happens if you aren't paying attention. You imagine he will remember it during the many sleepless nights to come.

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