Nick Saban captured another national championship for Alabama by taking a chance.
At halftime, with his team floundering on offense, Saban switched quarterbacks. In the locker room, he had told reserve Tua Tagovailoa, a freshman, that he would replace Jalen Hurts for the third quarter.
Benching a player who stood 25-2 as a starter and had experience on college football’s biggest stage for a player who was competing in high school in Hawaii last season was a bold move. Would it pay off?
With a College Football Playoff national championship.
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The Crimson Tide stunned Georgia 26-23 in overtime Monday, with the game ending in a flash, a 41-yard bomb from Tagovailoa to DeVonta Smith.
“I mean, I don’t know how coach Saban found me, all the way in Hawaii from Alabama,” Tagovailoa said. “But thank God he did.”
Alabama fans are saying the same thing.
Saban knew something had to change. Alabama mustered little offense with Hurts at the helm. Make the change or lose for the second straight year in the CFP title game.
“We had in our minds if we struggled offensively we give Tua an opportunity,” Saban said. “He gave us a chance, and a spark.”
The large Georgia contingent, yearning to see the program’s second consensus national championship, was stunned as confetti fell from the top of Mercedes-Benz Stadium to celebrate the Alabama walk-off triumph. One play earlier, the Bulldogs had sacked Tagovailoa for a 16-yard loss. The next snap shifted the cheers to the other side of the building.
Tagovailoa appeared in nine games this season. He played well and had the trust of the staff, but to enter the game under these circumstances and thrive in this environment is now the stuff of college football lore.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart said his team was prepared for the new look, a quarterback who could scramble but had a better grip on the passing game than Hurts, when Alabama trailed 13-0 at the break.
“We told everybody at halftime there was no doubt they were going to him,” Smart said.
The Bulldogs had been in command for most of the contest between SEC opponents who know each other so well. Smart served as the Tide’s defensive coordinator before taking over at Georgia two years ago.
This one will haunt Georgia. For most of three quarters the offense hummed behind the Bulldogs’ own freshman quarterback, Jake Fromm. His 80-yard touchdown pass for a 20-7 lead midway through the third quarter seemed like a dagger.
But Tagovailoa was just getting started, and the game became a battle between friends. Tagovailoa and Fromm, a Georgia native who had originally committed to Alabama, had gotten to know each other at prospect camps in high school. They praised each other in media sessions leading up to the game.
But Tagovailoa got the better of the matchup in their first meeting.
Also critical to Alabama’s surge, was the fact that its top-rated defense began to dig in and did not allow Georgia the opportunity to pull away. An interception by defensive end Raekwon Davis off a deflection led to an Andy Pappanastos field goal, and the score was 20-13 when Tagovailoa made the biggest play of regulation. His fourth-down touchdown pass from the 7 to Calvin Ridley streaking across the back of the end zone tied the game with 3:49 remaining.
The Tide was poised to win it after forcing a three-and-out and quickly moving downfield.
But Pappanastos pulled a 37-yard field-goal attempt on the final play. Georgia had new life and had experienced success in this situation only a week earlier. The Bulldogs outlasted Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl in double overtime to reach the title game.
Alabama won the overtime coin toss and elected to play defense. A 51-yard field goal by Rodrigo Blankenship on the first overtime possession brought a sigh of relief from Georgia fans, and the Bulldogs looked to be in great shape when Tagovailoa was sacked for a 16-yard loss on Alabama’s first overtime play.
Saban, his fifth national championship at Alabama since 2009 on the line, was livid. He ripped off his headset but quickly regrouped. His quarterback didn’t seem fazed at all. When Tagovailoa broke the huddle he saw single coverage to his left, where Smith was lined up. Georgia safety Dominick Sanders was shaded to the middle, held by Tagovailoa’s gaze long enough to not make a play on the ball.
Smith felt good about the play before lining up.
“When they called the play I looked at Tua and I said, ‘Trust me,’ Smith said.
Alabama had a walk-off triumph.
The Tide was favored, and they’re the resident bully of college football, but still this one bordered on improbable. Many of the offensive stars Monday — like rushing leader Najee Harris and Henry Ruggs III, who scored the Tide’s first touchdown — are freshmen.
“This was probably our best recruiting class, especially with offensive talent,” Saban said.
They are players who weren’t part of Alabama’s final-play loss to Clemson in last year’s national championship game. But for the returning players, that game had an impact on this one.
“We told our players not to waste the feeling from that game,” Saban said.
Even Saban himself must have felt it, gambling by changing quarterbacks in midstream to a rookie because he believed that was the only way to win. Again.