One for history, one for lore in Alabama victory

by Gary Shelton on January 9, 2018 · 2 comments

in general, National title game

Tuesday, 3 a.m.

He was supposed to belong to tomorrow. Maybe the day after.

He was supposed to be along for the ride. He was supposed to watch. He was supposed to congratulate his teammates. He was supposed to pose for the team picture.

Never was Tua Tagovailoa supposed to make an impact on the national championship game. Never was he supposed to use it as the first grand step of a career that might not have limits.

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Yet, there he was, partly because of Nick Saban's inspiration, and partially because of his desperation. Tagovailoa led Alabama to a come-from-behind victory, including a 41-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the game. The Tide won 26-23.

This will be remembered as the Tua game. Yes, Saban wrote his name in the history books, but Tagovailoa entered lore. As of now, you can mention his name beside of George Gipp and Tommy Lewis and the Four Horsemen and E. King Gill and Herschel and Bo and Namath and Tebow and all the rest of them. He is Earl Campbell and Rudy and the Lonesome End and Archie and the Seven Blocks of Granite and Kill, Bubba, Kill. For a kid who was in high school a few months ago, that's fairly heady company,

Talk about your forgotten heroes. This year, Tagovailoa threw only 53 passes in mop-up situations, almost 200 fewer than starter Jalen Hurts. And, remember, Hurts had brought the Tide from behind last year before Alabama lost to Clemson.

It was not a move to be made lightly, in other words. But when a team is cut and bleeding and leaning against the ropes, it makes desperate moves. Hurt had thrown for just 21 yards in the first half, and Bama trailed Georgia 13-0. The Bulldogs played with more energy, and more efficiency, throughout the first half.

Then came Tagovailoa, who threw for 166 yards and three scores to lead the Tide to the title.

"I found out when we were in the locker room (at halftime)," Tagovailoa said. "Coach brought the quarterbacks together and made the statement, "Tua, you are going to start out the second half. We're going to rotate the quarterbacks and see how things go."

It was the sixth national title for Saban -- his fifth at Alabama in the last nine years -- and it seemed to have silenced the critics that said the Tide -- who didn't make their own conference championship -- didn't belong in the playoffs.

Anyone want to argue for Ohio State now?

Of course, future generations should remember the part of the lore that goes back a play before Tagovailoa's winning pass. On the play before, he looked like a freshman, taking an ill-advised 16-yard sack. Given the struggles of placekicker Andy Pappanastos (who missed a field goal that would have won it for Bama in regulation), that put Georgia in terrific position.

Then Tagovailoa found Devonta Smith streaking down the left sideline. His throw was perfect.

"I just thought we had to throw the ball, and I felt he (Tagovailoa) could do it better, and he did," Saban said. "He did a good job, made some plays in the passing game. Just a great win. I'm so happy for Alabama fans. Great for our players. Unbelievable."

Certainly, Kirby Smart -- the ex-Alabama defensive coordinator -- will need time to believe. His team had rallied strongly after a loss to Auburn -- beating the Tigers, Oklahoma and then leading Alabama before falling in the end.

For Saban, this one was different. He's never had to go to overtime in a championship game before. His team barely beat Clemson in 2015, 45-40, but Clemson scored late to make it close. His team waxed Notre Dame 42-14 in 2012, and it smothered LSU 21-0 in 2011. It beat Texas -- which lost quarterback Colt McCoy early -- 37-21 in 2009.

"I've never been happier in my life," Saban said. And no wonder: His former assistants are now 0-12 against him.

He can thank Tagovailoa. Tagovailoa had a near interception before a field goal. He threw an interception, but he threw a tying touchdown pass to Calvin Ridley with 3:21 to play.

In all, his good outweighed his bad. By the same weight as the title trophy,

“We’ve had this in our mind that if we were struggling offensively, that we would give Tua an opportunity, even in the last game,” Saban said. “No disrespect to Jalen (Hurts), but the real thought was, you know, they came into the game thinking we were going to run the ball and be able to run quarterback runs, which we made a couple of explosive plays on. But with the absence of a passing game and being able to make explosive plays and being able to convert on third down, I didn’t feel we could run the ball well enough, and I thought Tua would give us a better chance and a spark, which he certainly did.”

It wasn't just his passing. Tagovailoa brought with him a certain energy, and his teammates responded.

"I think all year long we had lots of confidence in Tua, and we played him so that, if this situation occurred, that he would be ready to play," Saban said." I know that he was never in a situation where he was behind and had to come back in a game, but the game experience, the confidence, managing the team — he does a really good job in practice. Jalen was sick a couple days before the Clemson game, and the players really respond well to him. He’s a good leader. He’s very well liked by his teammates, and he’s got a very positive, upbeat attitude that affects other people around him in a very positive way.”

So where does Tagovailoa go from here? He could disappear again. Or, he could become Saban's best quarterback. He has enough wheels. He has enough arm. He has enough of the "it" factor.

And with his arm around a trophy, he looked pretty comfortable.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Larry Beller January 9, 2018 at 4:07 pm

So Saban is either incredibly lucky that this inexperienced QB who hadn’t had a meaningful snap all year, had the game of his life at the exact time when the team needed him the most. Or is Saban is really stupid for not playing him earlier (like in the Auburn game) if the guy is really that good. Which do you think is the right analysis?

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Gary Shelton January 9, 2018 at 8:57 pm

I’d certainly go with lucky, minimum. Maybe there was some stupidity mixed in.

I think coaches convince themselves that things are okay when they’re winning. There were certainly a lot of positives to Jalen Hurts, who could make a huge play with his legs. But the Tide hasn’t been as bad in any half throwing the ball as they were last night. I wrote it was half inspiration and half desperation.Georgia is a hard team to run against.

Sure, you can accuse Saban of being stupid for not doing it earlier, but when we he going to do so? Alabama led that game 14-10 in the third period, and they trailed only 20-14 going into the fourth quarter of that game. Hurts led the Tide with 82 yards rushing, so he wasn’t as bad as he was last night. Still, most coaches wait too long to switch when they’re in a game.

I don’t know that the kid makes a difference in that one, but looking back, it couldn’t have hurt. But most decisions that worked out could have been made earlier. Right?

At this point, none of us know how good the kid will be. Hurts could well win the job next year.

I know this: We live in a scoreboard society. Danny Kanell tweeted that it was a stupid move when it was made. But it worked, so Saban looks smart enough. If it hadn’t, we could second-guess his desperation forever. But it’s hard for me to call a winning move something from stupidity.

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