2018 CFP: Tide QB change risky but the difference
By Tim Gayle
ATLANTA – Nick Saban hasn’t entered many locker rooms at halftime with his team trailing 13-0.
It was obvious the game plan wasn’t working. To scrap the game plan, you needed to scrap the quarterback directing the offense and bring in a new script.
Saban’s decision to bench Jalen Hurts, who had compiled a 26-2 record as a starter, and go with true freshman Tua Tagovailoa in the second half of the College Football Playoff National Championship may be the most gutsy decision in the history of college football.
A team playing in its third consecutive national championship putting an unproven player on the biggest stage in college football? There was no other choice, according to Saban.
“I felt like that we’ve had this in our mind that, if we were struggling offensively, that we would give Tua an opportunity, even in the last game,” Saban said. “With the absence of a passing game and being able to make explosive plays and being able to convert on third down, I just didn’t feel we could run the ball well enough and I thought Tua would give us a better chance and a spark, which he certainly did.
“Sometimes just a little change of style, a little spark sort of ignites everyone, and I think that happened. Tua gets a lot of credit for that, but I think his teammates’ response to him was equally important.”
So when Tagovailoa launched his improbable 41-yard strike to DeVonta Smith to give Alabama an unlikely 26-23 overtime victory over Georgia, what could arguably be the most thrilling national championship among the Tide’s 17 titles was almost like – no disrespect, Bulldogs — another day at practice to the players.
“It shows you what we’re all about at Alabama,” tailback Bo Scarbrough said. “No matter, freshmen, sophomores, juniors, seniors, whoever, when they’re called on, they’re going to be ready. Coach Saban makes sure that everyone is ready to play and he puts his trust in the freshmen and we put our trust in them and we believe in them and they went out and did their job and did what they were supposed to do. I wasn’t surprised at all. The guy (Smith) catches the ball every day like that in practice, so when I saw that I felt like I was at practice.”
The last time a change at quarterback was made in a game with national championship implications was in the 1991 Orange Bowl when Colorado quarterback Darian Hagan injured his knee just prior to halftime and Charles Johnson played the entire second half in a 10-9 win over Notre Dame.
The last time Alabama made a change of that magnitude was in 1998 when John David Phillips was benched in the first half for Andrew Zow against Florida in Bryant-Denny Stadium, but there was no Southeastern Conference title, much less a national championship, on the line when Mike DuBose made that decision.
It’s the second time Saban has made that move. Next door, at the now-imploded Georgia Dome, LSU was trailing Georgia Tech 14-3 at the half when Saban replaced Josh Booty with Rohan Davey on the way to a 28-24 win in the 2000 Peach Bowl. But rallying from a halftime deficit with a new quarterback generally doesn’t translate into a winning decision.
“We gave them a different look at quarterback,” said Alabama linebacker Mack Wilson, a former quarterback. “Obviously, Jalen wasn’t able to complete some of his throws but, you know, Coach (Brian) Daboll just trusted (Tagovailoa) fully, throwing him in the fire. I felt like, for a freshman, he responded well. I feel like he was the difference maker tonight.”
The “new” game plan spread the field and went heavily toward the pass. The first drive ended with a scramble, a sack and a punt, but the second went 56 yards in two minutes and suddenly it was 13-7. Alabama was back in the game.
“He’s definitely a poised guy,” senior linebacker Rashaan Evans said. “He came up big in this game and it’s kind of something I expected him to do. He’s been doing it so much in practice. You just saw the results.”
A missed field goal at the end of regulation left Alabama and Georgia tied at 20-20. After a Georgia field goal, Tagovailoa was sacked, putting Alabama out of field goal range and Tagovailoa under the gun. The freshman responded in gunslinger fashion, hitting Smith in stride down the left sideline as the receiver ran past cornerback Malcom Parrish and gathered in the game-winning catch before safety Dominick Sanders could arrive.
“We called four verticals on that play,” Tagovailoa said, explaining why the safety was late to help Parrish with the coverage. “It looked like they were running two trap. The corner trap on that single receiver side, and I held the safety in the middle (with my eyes). I looked back out, and ‘Smitty’ was wide open so I hit him, and here we are now, thank God.”
“Coach ‘Locks,’ the whole week, was saying, ‘When they play Cover Two, just run off the ball because the safety is going to cheat and they’re not going to be able to get over there,’” Smith said. “I just did what he said. When I saw the coverage, I felt I had a chance.
“Coach Locks always talks about leveraging the DBs, getting on the DBs’ toes. When they called the play, that’s what was going through my mind. When I saw him backpeddling, I felt I got enough width to slip inside. And that’s what I did.”
As Tagovailoa released the ball, his defensive teammates stood on the sidelines, unable to believe their eyes.
“I didn’t see it coming,” said senior Shaun Dion Hamilton, sidelined since the LSU game with a knee injury. “When he got sacked, I was like, dang. But when I saw the receiver running down the field – I think they were in Cover Two – I saw him wide open and I couldn’t believe it. He caught the ball and I almost wanted to run.”
“I call him the ‘X’ factor,” defensive back Anthony Averett said. “He’s a gamer all the way. I knew he was going to give us that spark as soon as he got in the game. He sparked us right after the first drive. It was over after that.”
Perhaps Georgia coach Kirby Smart should have paid more attention.
“We told everybody at halftime there was no question they were going to him because they were struggling and they needed some momentum,” Smart said. “He provided them some juice, got them some momentum, got the momentum swung back their way. He’s a good player. He’s got confidence in his arm. He scrambles and makes plays, throws the ball down the field. He’s got poise in the pocket and he made the plays when he had to.”
On the other side of the field, Scarbrough said he “didn’t think the (Georgia) defense respected his arm so that opened it up on the offensive side and gave us a chance to drive the ball downfield.”
Two second-half touchdowns and a field goal knotted the score at 20-20. The last time Georgia defeated Alabama, in 2007, Alabama rallied back to tie the game at 20-20, took a brief lead at 23-20 and lost 26-23 when Matthew Stafford lobbed a 25-yard pass to Mikey Henderson in the left corner of the end zone for the walk-off touchdown.
Monday night, on a much larger stage, Tagovailoa would be in Stafford’s shoes, make the same call and have the same results.
“They called it and I was like, ‘Trust me, bro,’” Smith said. “This is my opportunity.”