ATLANTA — The Process was in need of an answered prayer.
Shut out at halftime and fortunate to only be trailing in the College Football Playoff championship game by 13 points, Nick Saban’s vaunted Alabama machine was breaking down in front of a shocked national audience. The Crimson Tide were in disarray and staring defeat in the face against poised and confident Georgia. In this dire situation, Saban turned to a raw freshman and asked him to rescue Alabama’s title hopes.
In a plot twist nobody imagined, Alabama’s prayer was answered by a praying teenager from Hawaii who hadn’t taken a single stressful snap all season.
Tua Tagovailoa, your star turn has suddenly and improbably arrived.
He was a hotshot recruit, but Tagovailoa hadn’t played against an FBS opponent since Oct. 21. He appeared in eight games, only getting on the field when Alabama had put games out of reach. But with starting quarterback Jalen Hurts horribly ineffective in a do-or-die game, Tua turned the Tide. It was a preternatural display of poise and moxie, with Tagovailoa producing 168 yards of offense and leading all five of Alabama’s scoring drives in a 26-23 overtime classic.
How, in the name of Bear Bryant, did a freshman bench jockey rise to this ridiculously pressurized occasion and become an instant hero?
“I was praying,” Tagovailoa said. “I was speaking in tongues. It kept me calm.”
He prayed before possessions. He prayed after possessions. He prayed and passed and scrambled his way into Alabama lore.
“I would say my poise comes from my faith,” Tagovailoa said. “I just pray for peace.”
He might pray for peace, but Tua unleashed mayhem on the final play Monday night.
The Tide never led until that play, a stunning 41-yard strike from Tagovailoa to wide-open fellow freshman DeVonta Smith — his only catch of the game. Smith caught the ball at the 3-yard line on a dead run, crossed the goal line and dealt Georgia the most crushing blow in its star-crossed history.
Before that Tua produced a series of jaw-dropping plays — most of them brilliant, some of them lucky, some of them freshman-stupid.
He eluded four Bulldogs on a cross-field scramble that converted a third-and-9 into a first down and keyed Alabama’s first touchdown drive. He got a play call completely wrong and threw an interception on what was supposed to be a running play. He threw a fourth-down pass into traffic and watched ‘Bama receiver Calvin Ridley beat everyone to the ball for the tying touchdown. He took a brutal sack in overtime that looked like it might cost the Tide the game.
“Tua probably couldn’t have thrown that pass if I could have got a hold of him after he took the sack,” Saban cracked. “But I couldn’t get out there fast enough.”
Given that reprieve, Tua came back the next play with that bomb to Smith for instant victory. Tua froze safety Dominick Sanders in the middle of the field with his eyes, and Sanders was late arriving.
“I looked back out, and he was wide open,” Tagovailoa said. “Smitty was wide open so I hit him, and here we are now, thank God.”
Said offensive coordinator Brian Daboll: “You see it in the air, you see him there, obviously, that’s why you do this.”
Alabama’s comeback was improbably fueled by its freshman class. Tagovailoa was the biggest eye-opener, but Smith wasn’t far behind. He had just six catches all season before Monday. And there was running back Najee Harris, a fourth-stringer who gashed Georgia in the fourth quarter while producing a team-high 64 rushing yards. Freshmen wideouts Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy combined for 69 receiving yards as well.
“This was, I think, one of our best recruiting classes,” Saban said, and the proof of it in this game should demoralize a nation already grappling with Alabama dynasty fatigue.
Given what Tagovailoa showed Monday, he could end up being the best of all Saban’s quarterbacks. And the kid didn’t seem shocked by any of it — like his time to shine was an inevitability.
“I couldn’t be prouder of him taking advantage of the opportunity,” Saban said. “We have total confidence in him.”
When it was over and Tagovailoa had been given the Offensive Player of the Game award, kissed the playoff trophy and been interviewed on TV, he ran up the stairs to the stands in Mercedes-Benz Stadium and into the embrace of his family. Tua’s father, Galu, was there, as were his two younger sisters and younger brother.
College football has had many players of Samoan descent become standouts, but most of them have been big, burly linemen. Now here comes a quarterback, a precocious product of Ewa Beach, Hawaii, whose future stardom has long been prophesied on the islands. Many thought Tagovailoa might follow the footsteps of Hawaiian hero Marcus Mariota to Oregon, but that didn’t happen.
Instead, Tua packed up his ukulele and singing talents — really, he’s got island musical skills — and took them to Tuscaloosa.
“I don’t know how Coach Saban found me all the way in Hawaii from Alabama,” Tua said. “Thank God he found me and we’re here right now. The biggest difference from Hawaii and Alabama would probably be there’s no beaches, but other than that, the people are very nice. The people are very religious. There’s football too. So how much better could it get?”
The Alabama player most impacted by this fortuitous marriage of faith and football is Hurts, the quarterback who was benched at halftime. He was the SEC Offensive Player of the Year last season as a true freshman himself, but this year his game has regressed under first-year offensive coordinator Daboll. Hurts was shaky against Auburn to close the regular season, not much better last week against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl and markedly worse in this game.
Now he might have just been put on the bench by Tagovailoa for the rest of his Alabama career.
Still, Hurts won a championship ring and exited the Alabama locker room with a smile on his face. He accepted congratulations from a couple of lingering fans and posed for a picture with two of them on his way to the bus. Then he exited the stadium, walking into a chilly night and an uncertain future.
Behind him, Tua finally arrived back at the Alabama locker room on the back of a golf cart. It was 1:32 a.m. ET, and he was still in full uniform. He disappeared into the locker room and didn’t come out for a long while.
There was no rush. Alabama wasn’t going anywhere without Tua Tagovailoa during the national championship game, and it sure wasn’t going anywhere without him afterward.
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