ATLANTA— The University of Alabama found the best possible way to showcase its newest star.
Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, a true freshman, came off the bench for ineffective starter Jalen Hurts at the start of the third quarter and personally took the game over here last night as the Crimson Tide rallied from a 13-0 halftime deficit to defeat SEC champion Georgia, 26-23, in overtime at the College Football Playoff championship game before a sellout crowd of 77,430 at Mercedes Benz Stadium.
The left-handed 6-1, 219-pound Tagovailoa, who grew up in in Honolulu, completed 14 -of-24 passes for 166 yards and three touchdowns and added 47 yards rushing, igniting a Tide’s sputtering offense and leading them to all 23 points in the second half after it looked like Georgia was destined to win its first national championship since 1980.
Tagovailoa became an instant legend in Alabama’s glorious history when he found freshman wide receiver Devonta Smith wide open down the left side and uncorked a 41-yard game winning touchdown pass after Rodrigo Blankenship kicked a 51-yard field goal to give Georgia a 23-20 lead on the first possession of overtime. His game winner came one play after he was sacked for a 16-yard loss on first down.
“He just stepped up and did his thing for the team,’’ Hurts admitted. “He’s built for stuff like this.’’
Too bad President Donald Trump, who attended the game but left at halftime, didn’t stick around to watch this dramatic finish.
The spiritual Tagovailoa was considered the second coming of another Hawaiian hero, Marcus Mariotta, the former Oregon star who now plays for the Tennessee Titans, when he signed with Alabama. He was rated the second best dual threat quarterback prospect in the Class of 2017. “I don’t know how the coaches found me,’’ he said. “I guess the biggest difference between here and Hawaii is no beaches. But they do have football and this game was very big for the kids back home, to make them proud of our state.’’
Tagovailoa forced overtime when he hit Calvin Ridley with a seven-yard touchdown pass on a fourth and nine with 3:49 to play in the fourth quarter. He put the Tide (13-1) in position to win the game in regulation when he took them on a 10 play, 48- yard drive in the final 2:55 of the fourth quarter but kicker Andy Pappanostos’ 36-yard field goal attempt went wide left with just three seconds to play.
Tagavailoa never panicked in overtime. “I could not believe it,’’ Alabama coach Nick Saban said of the final play. “When I saw Smitty come open on the other side, I said, ‘This is it.’’’
Saban, who has now won six national championships, always seems to find a way to win on the biggest stage. He is now 12-0 against his former assistants because he had the courage to put an untested, but talented freshman when the Tide’s offense looked broken.
“They were struggling,’’ Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “They needed some momentum and he provided them with some juice. He’s a talented player. And he had the confidence to throw the ball down field.’’
Tagovailoa has been preparing for this moment all season. Because the Tide had several blowout wins, he got to play in seven games and completed 35 of 53 passes for 470 yards with eight touchdowns and one interception. It is the quality of those completions that turned him into a fan favorite. He is a better passer than Hurts, who is more of a one-dimensional star and had struggled to generate offense in two of the Tide’s final three games. “Anywhere you go, you’re going to have to compete,’’ he said. “In life you’re going to go get a job. You going to next to compete with the next person to move up.’’
There were times when Tagovailoa was homesick for his family. But he gutted it out, getting a chance to work with the first team throughout the season. And he produced when the Tide needed him the most.
For the longest time, this looked like a lost cause The Dawgs (13-2) dominated play in the first half when they took a 13-0 lead, exposing Alabama’s surprising lack of efficiency on both sides of the ball. Then, they looked like they might have come up with a game defining play when freshman quarterback Jake Fromm uncorked an 80-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mecole Hardman to give Georgia a 20-7 lead with 6:47 left in the third quarter.
“The resiliency of this team to come through in the second half. . . I’m so proud of our players to come back after the first half we played wasn’t very good,” Saban said. “If you can’t overcome hard, you’re never going to have any great victories in your life,’’ Saban said.