Trailing 13-0 in the national title game and his offense sputtering and smoking like a broken-down car on the side of the highway, Nick Saban decided it was a good time to yank his veteran quarterback and replace him with a freshman.
A phenom, sure, but a freshman nonetheless. And Saban places the weight of Alabama, the legacy of all those national titles and the ghost of Bear Bryant on his shoulders.
Why? Because Nick Saban knows more than anyone else. Most important, he knew exactly what Tua Tagovailoa was capable of.
Now everyone else does, too.
Thrown into the game to start the second half, Tagovailoa threw two touchdown passes in regulation and put Alabama in position to win it at the end of regulation. When the field goal attempt failed — Alabama, y’all! — Tagovailoa uncorked a gorgeous, 41-yard pass to beat Georgia in overtime, giving the Tide the most improbable of its 12 national titles.
“I trust players, players that do things the right way, players who prepare the right way, practice the right way, they’re dependable,” Saban said after the 26-23 victory. “When players do that, I have total faith, trust and confidence to put them out there.
“So I have that in Tua.”
Now, Tagovailoa was not some unknown who just happened to wander into an Alabama practice. He was the one of the top prep quarterbacks in the country coming out of St. Louis High School in Hawaii last year. A dual threat, he threw for 3,932 yards and 43 touchdowns as a senior and rushed for 1,727 yards and 27 TDs in his three years as a starter.
From the minute he arrived in Tuscaloosa last January, it was obvious that Jalen Hurts’ days as the Alabama starter were numbered.
But that was supposed to be next year. At least, that’s how it seemed when Saban stuck with Hurts despite the offense’s obvious struggles.
If Tagovailoa got in games, it was mop-up duty. Certainly not what anyone would consider significant playing time.
“We played him so that, if this situation occurred, he would be ready to play,” Saban said as Tagovailoa nodded. “I know he was never in a situation where he was behind and had to come back in a game, but the game experience, the confidence, managing the team …”
It’s not that Hurts is a bad quarterback. As Saban pointed out, Hurts led the Tide to back-to-back appearances in the national title game.
But Tagovailoa is special, a dynamic player who can lift his team and break the will of his opponent.
“I thought Tua would give us a better chance and a spark, which he certainly did,” Saban said.
That was quickly obvious.
Facing third-and-7 on his second drive, Tagovailoa had to have felt like he was seeing something out of Game of Thrones as the Georgia defense swarmed through the Tide’s offensive line. The best he could hope for was to throw the ball away, not take a sack.
Instead, Tagovailoa took off, running first to his right. Then, seeing that the entire left side of the field was open, he reversed course. With one of his teammates making sure none of the Bulldogs got close, Tagovailoa picked up the first down.
He would follow that play with four consecutive completions, the last a 6-yard score to Henry Ruggs.
Oh, he showed some growing pains. When he was picked off by Georgia on the next drive, his receivers were all blocking, clearly unaware what was coming.
“We missed a signal. In other words, everybody was running a running play and he thought it was a passing play,” Saban said as Tagovaiola sheepishly hung his head. “So it causes a problem when all the receivers are blocking instead of running a pass route, and then it sort of quadruples the problem when the quarterback throws it to him anyway.
“But we learn from those things, right?”
“Yes, sir,” Tagovailoa said.
Saban was looking for a spark. What he got was a national title, and a quarterback who might win him several more.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.