Playing true freshman Tua Tagovailoa in the national championship game became a consideration for Alabama head coach Nick Saban more than a month before the lefty entered college football lore with a game-winning touchdown pass in overtime.
During many of the 15 practices before Alabama entered the College Football Playoff, Tagovailoa continued to impress with poise and potential.
“We just all knew,” Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley said of Tagovailoa.
Trailing 13-0 to Georgia at halftime in the national championship game in Atlanta on Monday, Saban opted to turn the game over to Tagovailoa and became a six-time champion because of it. To the bench went two-year starter Jalen Hurts, who delivered an uneven first half after his effort against Clemson in the semifinals was self-described as not great.
“I just thought we had to throw the ball,” Saban said of making the change. “I thought he could do it better. I think Tua certainly gave us a spark in the second half offensively, and I think that was something that helped us on defense as well as to put some points on the board to give us a chance to win the game.”
Tagovailoa started the second half and completed 14 of 24 passes for 166 yards and three touchdowns with an interception.
The move to Tagovailoa paid dividends on his second possession. He led a seven-play, 56-yard drive that ended with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Henry Ruggs with 8:52 left in the third quarter. Alabama forced overtime when Tagovailoa hit Calvin Ridley for a 7-yard touchdown pass on a 4th-down play with 3:49 remaining, capping its rally from a 13-point halftime deficit.
“This happened once before at LSU, I think in our first year. Josh Booty was our quarterback,” Saban recalled. “We got behind Georgia Tech like 14-0 or something, here in Atlanta playing in the Peach Bowl. I just went in at halftime and said Rohan Davey you need to go play, because we need a spark on offense and we need something to change. We ended up winning the game 28-14. Sometimes just a little change of style, a little spark sort of ignites everyone, and I think that happened in the game last night. Tua gets a lot of credit for that, but I think his teammates’ response to him was equally important.”
Tagovailoa also put the Crimson Tide into position to win the game in regulation but Andy Pappanastos pulled a 36-yard field goal try wide left as time expired.
Georgia opened overtime with a field goal and then appeared to be on the verge of putting the game away because of a freshman mistake on first down.
Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian called “Seattle” after Tagovailoa opened Alabama’s overtime possession by taking a 16-yard loss on a sack. The play call, from a four-wide receiver set, calls for an “all go” with each receiver sprinting on a fly pattern to the end zone. Tagovailoa said he noticed Georgia was attempting to disguise a Cover-2 defense.
The lefty looked off the safety by glancing to his right, opening a one-on-one situation down the sideline for DeVonta Smith. Smith pulled in the 41-yard touchdown and Alabama claimed another trophy.
Hurts did not sulk on the sideline and Saban said he was an asset to Tagovailoa during the game.
“Look, we have two good quarterbacks on our team, no doubt,” Saban said. “Both of them made a great contribution to the success of the team this year. I think that we haven’t really made a decision about that. I don’t think it’s imperative that we make one right now. We’ve got two fine young men who really respect each other and have worked hard to help each other all year long. Hopefully we’ll be able to continue to do that in the future.”
–Field Level Media