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Tua Tagovailoa vs. Kyler Murray Was an NFL Fever Dream

The two recent college greats got their first chance to square off in a professional game on Sunday, and it more than lived up to the hype

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Arizona Cardinals Photo by Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY Sports

As of Sunday afternoon, the NFL futures of Tua Tagovailoa and Kyler Murray appear to be extremely bright. Die-hard college football fans already knew this, of course. Murray’s Heisman campaign at Oklahoma and Tagovailoa’s dazzling Alabama career left few reasons to question whether either diminutive passer would succeed at the next level. But on Sunday, when Tagovailoa’s Dolphins outlasted Murray’s Cardinals in a 34-31 thriller, NFL fans experienced the same fever dream that CFB fans did almost two years ago. It was a taste of two of the league’s future stars living up to the hype that’s followed them for years.

In 2018, Murray and Tagovailoa posted video game numbers in what was one of the most exciting recent Heisman races before squaring off in the College Football Playoff semifinal. Tagovailoa’s Crimson Tide jumped out to a 28-0 lead, and Murray’s Sooners never closed the gap to anything fewer than 11 points and lost 45-34. Murray was selected no. 1 in the 2019 NFL draft by the Cardinals—led by former Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury—and bypassed a pro baseball career in the process. Tagovailoa had one college season left before he could make the jump, but didn’t finish it after suffering a dislocated hip and posterior wall fracture last November. The Dolphins took him no. 5 overall this spring, and after sitting behind Ryan Fitzpatrick for six games, he was named Miami’s starter. Both players looked every bit the part of NFL franchise quarterbacks Sunday.

Miami and Arizona traded scores throughout the contest, with each young passer relying on his strengths: Murray on his mobility and cannon arm, and Tagovailoa on his poise and accuracy. Murray completed 21 of 26 passes for 283 yards and three touchdowns. He also made a huge difference in the game with his legs, tallying a career-high 106 rushing yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.

Tagovailoa, meanwhile, looked much more composed this week than he did in his first start against the Rams. Tagovailoa completed 20 of 28 passes for 248 yards and two touchdowns, displaying great decision-making from the pocket, especially in the face of pressure.

Entering the fourth quarter, with Arizona up seven points, it seemed as though Murray might avenge that 2018 Orange Bowl loss. But Tagovailoa eventually led a 10-play, 93-yard drive and threw a game-tying touchdown pass to Mack Hollins.

Arizona turned the ball over on downs on their ensuing possession, and Tagovailoa directed a short drive to set up a go-ahead, 50-yard field goal. The Cardinals got the ball back and Murray nearly sent the game to overtime, but facing a fourth-and-1 at Miami’s 31-yard line, Kingsbury was content with trying a 49-yard field goal. That fell short and clinched the Dolphins’ win—their fourth in a row. “Our mental toughness showed up today,” Miami coach Brian Flores told reporters afterward.

At 5-3, both the Cardinals and Dolphins are positioned to contend for a playoff berth. And while Arizona has been inconsistent at times this year, this team has shown that it’s capable of competing with the league’s best behind outstanding performances from Murray. The same can be said for Miami, which has surprisingly found itself in the thick of the playoff race even after making a midseason quarterback change. Earlier this week, Flores urged that he was not auditioning Tagovailoa to gauge whether he should select a quarterback in the 2021 draft. The rookie’s performance Sunday should put away any notions of that.

“He made plays for us—a lot of big plays for us,” Flores said after Sunday’s win. “We needed it. The stage wasn’t too big for him tonight.”

Sunday’s regular-season game didn’t hold the same stakes as Murray and Tagovailoa’s college bout, but the excitement and anticipation was undeniable. So far, they’ve lived up to the expectations placed on them in the NFL. Whether their play can carry their respective teams to the playoffs is still to be determined, but one thing is clear: The bar wasn’t set too high for this pair of quarterbacks after all.