How Tua Tagovailoa, a Freshman Quarterback who Barely Played All Season, Stepped in to Save Alabama’s Season

Tua Tagovailoa rolls out on a pass play. PHOTO: CHRISTIAN PETERSEN/GETTY IMAGES

After starter Jalen Hurts struggled in the first half of the national championship, Tagovailoa threw three touchdowns to lead the Crimson Tide to a title

The only decision bolder than Nick Saban’s move to put in Tua Tagovailoa midway through college football’s national championship game was Tua Tagovailoa’s decision to attend Alabama in the first place.

Over and over, people asked: “Why is he going there?” said Vinny Passas, Tagovailoa’s quarterbacks coach at St. Louis School in Honolulu.

Tagovailoa, arguably the top quarterback recruit in the entire country, had his pick of schools. No team would make his life as difficult as Alabama—the school that had just been led to a title game by Jalen Hurts, then a true freshman quarterback who was named the Southeastern Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2016. Beyond that, Tagovailoa had grown up deeply familiar with Pac-12 football. Southern California was closer to home and a favorite to land him. Oregon, which a few years ago took Marcus Mariota from Hawaii to Heisman Trophy, made a late push. Meanwhile, Tagovailoa was often asleep or practicing when SEC games kicked off.

Tagovailoa chose Alabama anyway. The potential fate of sitting behind Hurts not just this season, but for the next two years, accompanied that. So when Passas turned on Monday’s national championship between Alabama and Georgia at home in Hawaii, he was hoping “to get a glimpse of [Tagovailoa] on the sidelines.” Despite growing clamors suggesting Tagovailoa should see the field, that’s all that was reasonable after he had barely played all season.

Then came one of the wildest decisions in college football history. It was as desperate as it was brazen. Alabama trailed 13-0 at halftime. Saban benched Hurts. He put in the 19-year-old true freshman. The Crimson Tide walked off the field champions in a 26-23 overtime heart-stopper. Tagovailoa, who completed 14-of-24 passes for 166 yards and three touchdowns with one interception, was named the game’s offensive MVP.

“Who would’ve ever thought I would’ve been here right now?” he said.

The answer: Pretty much nobody. Which is what gives Monday night’s thriller special gravitas in the roped-off section of all-time classics. It wasn’t just an overtime nail-biter. Or a hair-raising comeback. It was both of those—and also led by a baby-faced hero who traveled more than 4,000 miles expecting to still be waiting his turn.

The unlikely circumstances that led to an improbable halftime quarterback change and even more improbable comeback began at last year’s national championship—the one Alabama lost. Hurts, who took the job at the start of the season and spent the season mostly making a mockery of vaunted SEC defenses as a true freshman, began to look exposed.

While Clemson stormed back in that game, the Alabama offense frequently sputtered. The Crimson Tide went three-and-out four times in the second half. Hurts, still an effective runner, struggled to pass the ball: He completed 13-of-31 attempts in the game for 131 yards. The Tigers took the lead—and the title—with one second left.

But for much of this season, Hurts did all that was needed. He threw only one interception, and Alabama won most of its games with ease.

That gave little room for his backup to make a name for himself. Tagovailoa’s cameos, though, were tantalizing. He completed 8-of-10 passes for two touchdowns in a blowout against Vanderbilt, including one laser where he avoided several rushers and threw a strike into the end zone. He threw another the next week against Ole Miss, and finished the regular season with eight touchdowns, one interception and 470 yards on 53 attempts. It was just enough to tease a fan base, and even the greatest coach in the sport, with a pinch of doubt: Maybe Alabama’s best passer isn’t the quarterback throwing all the passes.

The one player who may know best said he saw what could happen the day they started practicing. “We just all knew,” said Calvin Ridley, Alabama’s star receiver.

Still, Tagovailoa’s last action came against an FCS opponent. Before Monday, he hadn’t thrown a pass against a team at the sport’s top level since October. His biggest moment came playing a ukulele in a popular video posted by one of his coaches. That’s why, despite rumors he could appear in the Sugar Bowl against Clemson, it seemed just a little too fantastical for him to take the field in the national championship. Notably, that semifinal game against Clemson, a win this year, was hardly on the back of Hurts. He threw for 120 yards and managed a game led by Alabama’s overwhelming defense. Tagovailoa didn’t play.

Then came the first half against Georgia. Hurts looked the way most quarterbacks look when facing Alabama. He completed 3 of 8 passes. He threw for 21 yards. Alabama was held scoreless. And at halftime, Saban made the choice that changed the course of college football history.

Click here for more.

SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal – Andrew Beaton