On Monday, a true freshman quarterback led his team to victory in the 2018 College Football Playoff championship game. The twist was it wasn’t the true freshman most would have anticipated.
While Georgia trotted out Jake Fromm behind center once again, the Crimson Tide brought out their own true freshman after a lackluster first half and saw an offensive turnaround. Backup quarterback Tua Tagovailoa reignited a sluggish Alabama offense, completing 14 passes for 166 yards and three touchdowns.
With Tagovailoa on the field, Alabama outscored Georgia 26-10 in the second half and overtime, those final six being on a 41-yard touchdown pass to seal an unforgettable 26-23 victory.
“We needed a spark,” offensive lineman Bradley Bozeman said. “Tua gave us a little spark, and we rolled with it. We fed off him and let him take control.”
There was no semblance of a spark in the first half of play from Jalen Hurts, who struggled to the tune of 3-of-8 passing for 21 yards. The Alabama offense couldn’t muster any points in a nightmarish first half, which ended with Georgia leading 13-0.
Tagovailoa said that as the Alabama players gathered in the locker room at halftime, head coach Nick Saban brought the quarterbacks together. That’s when Saban told his true freshman he would be leading the way after the intermission.
“I felt like that we’ve had this in our mind that, if we were struggling offensively, we would give Tua an opportunity, even in the last game,” Saban said. “I just didn’t feel like we could run the ball well enough, and I thought Tua would give us a better chance and a spark.”
Though he was unexpectedly thrust into the Crimson Tide’s biggest game, Tagovailoa looked anything but uncomfortable. Tagovailoa immediately showed he was capable on the field, making play after play to cut into Georgia’s once-comfortable lead.
Perhaps no moment illustrated what Tagovailoa was about to do better than his run with 10:17 left in the third quarter. Facing a third-and-7, Tagovailoa scrambled to his right, where he was met by three hard-charging Bulldogs. Instead of going down, Tagovailoa bounced off Georgia defensive lineman Trenton Thompson, reversed course to his left and picked up nine yards to move the chains.
That play was a gut punch for the worn-down Bulldogs’ defense, but it was nothing like the knockout blow Tagovailoa delivered in overtime.
After being sacked for a 16-yard loss on the Alabama offense’s first play of overtime, Tagovailoa delivered the throw of his young career. He delivered an absolute dart down the left side of the field to DeVonta Smith, who made the catch to score and secure the victory.
Tagovailoa’s composure immediately after a play that put Alabama in serious jeopardy did not go unnoticed by some of the older Alabama players.
“Like a veteran, isn’t it?” junior wide receiver Calvin Ridley said. “It was crazy. We practice so hard in those type of situations. He’s been in situations like that in practice. He made a play.”
What reeked as potential desperation by Saban to start the second half turned out to be yet another ingenious move by the legendary head coach. Tagovailoa turned the tide for Alabama and in the process became the first backup quarterback to enter during a championship game and win since Colorado’s Charles Johnson in the 1991 Orange Bowl.
Jordan D. Hill: 770-894-9818, @lesports