Age is only a construct. Inexperience is not a setback. Talent always wins. Alabama true freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was the manifestation of these platitudes in Monday night’s national championship game, lifting the Tide to a thrilling 26-23 overtime victory and delivering a performance that instantly goes down as the stuff of college football legend.
The all-SEC national title game between Bama and Georgia was supposed to be a clash of defensive-minded teams led by a pair of dynamic rushing attacks. It was for most of the first half, but it quickly turned into something else altogether. Nick Saban was put on the ropes by his pupil Kirby Smart as Georgia true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm picked apart the vaunted Crimson Tide defense by completing one critical third-down throw after another. Saban was forced to counter with his youth to salvage any chance of winning. Most notably, Tagovailoa went from a comfortable seat on the bench to the postgame podium, finishing 14-of-24 passing for 166 yards with three touchdowns en route to earning title-game MVP honors. He led Alabama to a 13-point comeback and its second national championship in three years.
“Who would have ever thought I would have been here?” Tagovailoa said on ESPN after the game, as if speaking for everyone who had watched the performance he masterfully assembled. His first nationally televised interview came after winning the national title, no less.
Tagovailoa, who hails from Hawaii, played only sporadically this season, attempting 53 passes for 470 yards with eight scores. He’d made stellar plays in limited action, but entered this game firmly entrenched as Jalen Hurts’s backup. By the time he stood on the field cradling a trophy, though, the freshman had turned the game in the Tide’s favor with his left arm, his feet, and his precocious vision. Words alone don’t do his highlights justice; for the game-winning pass in overtime, Tagovailoa set himself, looked off Georgia’s safeties with his eyes, and unleashed a dart down the sideline to a wide-open DeVonta Smith.
From the basement to the penthouse in 30 secs pic.twitter.com/Ntxscrd6Gh— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) January 9, 2018
On a second-and-26 with the championship hanging in the balance, Tua didn’t need more downs. He had dimes.
Tagovailoa didn’t come out of nowhere, exactly, as he was a consensus five-star recruit in the Class of 2017. But he wasn’t the true freshman passer who entered Monday night in the spotlight. That was Georgia’s Fromm, who’d previously gone 12-1 as a starter and who staked the Bulldogs to a 13-0 halftime lead. Fromm showed poise and touch in connecting with receiver Riley Ridley, and he appeared far more polished than Alabama counterpart Hurts, who went just 3-of-8 passing for 21 yards in the first two quarters. Georgia headed into the break looking like the superior team in every facet of the game, so Saban responded with a gamble: He put the ball in the untested hands of Tagovailoa.
According to Tagovailoa, Saban told the Tide at halftime that they would rotate quarterbacks moving forward, yet it was Tua under center when the first offensive snap of the second half arrived. The game immediately changed as a result. The threat of Tagovailoa’s cannon-like arm allowed Alabama to keep Georgia’s defense honest, and he completed a 6-yard touchdown pass to Henry Ruggs III to put Bama on the board midway through the third quarter.
That’s when madness ensued. Fromm launched an 80-yard touchdown pass to Mecole Hardman to put the Bulldogs ahead 20-7. Bama’s defense made a helmet-aided interception and a handful of key stops. It all set the stage for an 18-year-old with minimal experience to surgically dissect one of the most formidable defenses in the country. Take, for example, Tua’s laser of a throw to Calvin Ridley that tied the game at 20 with less than four minutes remaining in regulation.
Tua to Calvin Ridley.— Dr. Saturday (@YahooDrSaturday) January 9, 2018
We're tied at 20.
What a game. pic.twitter.com/bDLAuln84g
After the Tide defense made another crucial stop, Tagovailoa drove the team into field goal range. A win looked secured, Saban’s second-half bet set to pay off. But first, a field goal had to be made. Alabama kicker Andy Pappanastos had already missed a 40-yarder, and he pushed this one way left. Bama’s kicking woes are eternal. This time, that brought overtime.
Georgia got the ball first and failed to reach the end zone. Still, the Dawgs’ kicker wouldn’t falter. Rodrigo Blankenship, glasses and all, coolly nailed a 51-yard try. Blankenship was a play away from being the unlikeliest of heroes. Instead, he was supplanted by a hero even more unlikely.
Alabama’s overtime possession was short. On its first play, Tua scrambled away from the line of scrimmage, going down in the backfield for what seemed momentarily like a devastating 16-yard sack. On the next play, Tua uncorked the throw that will be replayed in Alabama for generations.
“He’s built for stuff like this,” Hurts later said on ESPN’s broadcast of the quarterback who had replaced him. “He has the it factor.”
No true freshman quarterback has led his team to a national title win since 1985. Before the game, Fromm seemed like he might be the one to break that streak. Even for the truest of Tua believers, it would have been hard to imagine that this moment—his moment—would happen like this.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Tagovailoa threw the game-winning pass to Calvin Ridley.