True freshmen quarterbacks, who haven’t thrown a pass against FBS competition since mid October, playing on the national championship stage, shouldn’t look like savvy veterans. Don’t tell that to Tua Tagovailoa.
Trailing by three, the Hawaii native lost 16 yards on a sack to start Alabama’s overtime drive. The young freshman shook it off, and hit fellow freshman DeVonta Smith for a 41-yard touchdown on the next play to win the game to give the Crimson Tide the 26-23 victory.
Down 13-0 after two quarters, Alabama head coach Nick Saban got desperate.
His offense, led by sophomore signal-caller Jalen Hurts spun its tires in the first half, gaining just 94 yards against a stingy Georgia defense. Hurts, who had won 25 of his first 27 starts, threw for 21 yards and was pulled in favor of Tagovailoa to start the third quarter.
Tagovailoa came in and had a game that made himself an instant legend, throwing three touchdowns while combining for 193 total yards.
He went three and out on his first drive of the second half, but got things going afterward. A third down scramble for nine yards picked up a first down and ignited an Alabama touchdown drive, ending with Tagovailoa hitting four passes in a row for 44 yards and a touchdown to fellow freshman Henry Ruggs III.
That nine-yard scramble seemed to breathe new life into Alabama on both sides of the ball for the rest of the second half.
After giving up 223 yards to the Bulldogs in the first half, Alabama allowed 142 yards in the second half while out gaining them by 135. After combining for 77 yards in the first two quarters, the backfield tandem of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel were limited to 46 yards. Chubb was especially neutralized, rushing for nine yards on 10 second half carries.
After Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm tossed an 80-yard bomb to Mecole Hardman on the ensuing possession to give the Bulldogs a 20-7 lead with 6:47 remaining in the third, Tagovailoa got a chance to cut the lead to six points once again.
He showed signs of youth, making an ill-advised throw into traffic, which led to an interception, and gave Georgia the ball at the Alabama 39-yard line. Fortunately for Tagovailoa, Fromm threw an interception of his own on the very next play, which was returned 19 yards by Raekwon Davis. Six plays later, Alabama cut it to 20-10 with a 43-yard field goal by Andy Pappanastos.
Other than the 80-yard touchdown pass, Fromm threw for just 26 yards on six other completions in the second half, as the Georgia offense failed to get anything going in the fourth quarter.
Tagovailoa wasn’t the only freshman Nick Saban called upon, either. When the Crimson Tide got its running game going in the fourth, it was because running back Najee Harris gashed the Bulldogs’ defense. The freshman from California ripped off gains of 16 and 35 yards on an eight-play drive that ended in a Pappanastos field goal. Harris totaled 64 yards in the second half with an average of 10.7 yards per carry.
With Alabama whittling down its lead to seven at the 9:24 mark of the fourth, Georgia decided to go to its wildcat offense, and failed to pick up a first down as a result. The Bulldogs punted it away with 7:10 remaining, giving Tagovailoa a chance to be a hero. And that’s just what he did, leading the Crimson Tide down the field, tossing his second touchdown of the game with 3:49 left in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 20.
The come-from-behind win gives Nick Saban his sixth championship as a head coach, tying with with Bear Bryant for the most all time, as well as his 12th victory in 12 games against former assistant coaches.
Come to think of it, this may be Nick Saban’s best coaching job in any of those six seasons. Throughout the program’s decade of dominance under Saban, there are many players who became household names during their time in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Running back Mark Ingram Ingram won the Heisman Trophy in 2009, the season Saban won his first national title at Alabama. Wide receiver Julio Jones was a freak of nature the moment he stepped on campus as a wiry freshman and became the sixth overall pick in the draft. Then came wide receiver Amari Cooper and running back Derrick Henry, who also won the Heisman in 2015, both of whom had stellar careers at Alabama.
This year was different. In the first 13 games of the season, there was no real super star on the roster, but Saban’s steadiness and system allowed Tagovailoa to step in and carry this time to another championship.
In the final game of a season in which Alabama was starless, it may have found a new one in Tua Tagovailoa.