PASADENA, Calif. -- His eyes were red with tears. It was clear the end of his freshman season was a difficult learning experience for Garrett Gilbert.
After Colt McCoy was knocked out of the game after five offensive snaps, Texas was forced to turn to Gilbert in an emergency situation that trumped anything believable before the game.
Gilbert's earlier career had included only 26 passes in nine games. And none of those had come in meaningful playing time.
"Here's a guy standing there on the sidelines who's as cold as he could be, and all of a sudden in the national championship game, it's like, 'O.K., son, you've got it.' I can't even imagine," Texas coach Mack Brown said.
After early struggles, Gilbert led a determined comeback that rallied the Longhorns into a chance to win with less than three minutes left in the game.
Gilbert said he'll remember the three turnovers he had in the final three minutes that helped ice Alabama's 37-21 victory in the 2010 Citi BCS National Championship Game as much as orchestrating his team's near-comeback.
"Obviously, it was a tough, humbling experience," Gilbert said. "That defense did a great job all night long."
Even after McCoy's injury, the Longhorns took advantage of strong field possession to score on its first two drives. But they scored only six points on those drives. The first came on the drive when McCoy was hurt. And the other field goal came after Texas recovered an ensuing onside kick at the Alabama 30, but could move the ball only five yards after three plays.
And after that early success, Gilbert struggled against Alabama's defensive pressure. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis kept the wraps on Gilbert for the rest of the half as the Longhorns produced only one first down before the break.
"Coach Davis tried to ease me in a little," said Gilbert, who misfired on nine of his first 10 passes and totaled minus-4 yards passing in the first half. "We didn't try to do too much."
But after the break, Gilbert was a different player. The Texas offense was crisp as Jordan Shipley re-appeared after catching only one pass in the first half.
The short quick passes seemed better suited to Gilbert's grasp of the game as well.
Touchdown passes of 44 and 28 yards to Shipley had the Longhorns on the brink of stealing the victory after the Crimson Tide went into a third-quarter meltdown.
The last touchdown prompted McCoy to charge into the huddle, exhorting his backup with his good shoulder after the scoring drive.
"I thought Garrett did a tremendous job," McCoy said. "For a freshman to do that was something. I've taught him everything I know for the whole year. For him to go out and throw two touchdowns against a tough defense like Alabama is extremely impressive."
The late charge had the Longhorns in position to win the game with less than 3 minutes. But after starting at the Texas 7 and picking up one first down, the Longhorns' hopes ended when Gilbert was sacked by blitzing Alabama linebacker Eryk Anders and his fumble was recovered by Courtney Upshaw at the Texas 3.
"I had all the confidence in the world," Gilbert said. "I was rolling and clicking at the time. But you just can't turn the ball over like that."
His final statistics didn't do justice to what he accomplished in his longest action of the season. Gilbert completed 15 of 40 passes for 186 yards and two touchdowns and was intercepted four times including both of his final possessions.
Instead, the strong comeback is a harbinger of the future. McCoy said he expects big things from his likely replacement if he can keep playing like he did in Thursday's game.
"He's going to have an outstanding career," McCoy said. "There's no need for him to hang his head. He came in and gave us a chance to win. That's all we could ask of him."
And while that might not make Gilbert's loss any easier to accept, his strong effort should help catapult him into spring practice as the key offensive player for the Longhorns.
The tears were real. But after a few days of reflection, Gilbert should realize he showed the potential many saw when he was one of the nation's most heralded quarterbacking prospects in last season's recruiting class.
"This can only help me," Gilbert said. "It was a humbling experience and something that will stick with me. Not in a negative way, but in a positive way to get ready for the spring."
Tim Griffin covers college football for ESPN.com. You may contact him at email@example.com.