MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Far above the field at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday night, the last truly legendary Alabama quarterback rooted vociferously for the next one. Joe Namath, who for generations has been the standard for Tide quarterbacks, watched Tua Tagovailoa surgically pick apart the Oklahoma defense with his mouth agape.
“He was raving about Tua’s ability,” Crimson Tide athletic director Greg Byrne told Yahoo Sports, “to throw the ball and manage the game.”
We are about 51 weeks into the full Tua Tagovailoa experience, a run so surreal that nothing is surprising anymore. He’s bookended a calendar year that began with an epic relief performance in the national title game in January with a 24-for-27, four-touchdown Picasso in the College Football Playoff semifinal.
Along the way, Alabama has won all 15 games in which Tagovailoa has appeared, and he finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting. He’s become such a transcendent star that he’s emerging as the college football version of one-named stars like Pele, Bono and Madonna.
Tua’s latest conquest included a vanquishing of the foil who’d closed strong to end his run at the Heisman Trophy. Tua outplayed and outclassed Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, who will head off to spring training having completed 19-of-37 for 308 yards, a too-little-too-late effort in which he looked at times both overwhelmed by both the moment and Alabama’s swarms of defenders.
And it’s given us another reason to laud the Tua Experience, which is exhausting the limits of our hyperbole. After all, he’s thrown 41 touchdowns to just four interceptions this season, completed 69.5 percent of his passes and shown an affinity to avoid mistakes and negative plays.
As he completes his sophomore season, Tagovailoa has showcased the poise and polish of a 10-year NFL veteran and an uncanny ability to fit the ball through windows the size of a contact lens. He’s got a Navy Seal demeanor, a sniper’s execution and has pushed Alabama’s offense to the outer limits of production at 47.7 points per game.
No. 1 Alabama’s 45-34 victory over No. 4 Oklahoma in the CFP semifinal offered a bigger stage for the same brilliance we’ve come to expect from Tagovailoa this season. Against a defense that entered the game ranked No. 130 nationally in passing, Tagovailoa’s 318 yards assured they’d remain dead last. Along the way, he completed 88 percent of his passes and made the brilliant look routine.
“Mad props to him,” said Oklahoma defensive back Tre Norwood. “I knew he was a great quarterback, but playing him live you get a good feeling how great he is.”
We’ll get that chance again in a little over a week. When No. 1 Alabama plays No. 2 Clemson on Jan. 7 for the title, we’ll get a peek at double-barrel future greatness. Tua is the odds-on favorite for the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL draft and Clemson freshman Trevor Lawrence is the heavy favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft.
That game could hinge on Clemson’s ability to slow down a run-pass option play that looked unstoppable against Oklahoma. And, really, all season. The Tide completed a backside RPO to the slot receiver at will, a play that requires Tua to read a linebacker and expose him when he chooses to commit to the run or pass.
“It’s a beautiful play that they run,” marveled Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray.
How does it work? It starts with Tua making a read after a linebacker makes a fateful choice. “They have the ability to run it off of a zone play,” Murray explained. “Theirs is a bit unique. They have the ability to run it out of their two-back counter set and pull some people. Anytime you see pullers as a backer, you automatically think run downhill. It’s a run-pass conflict. I have a puller and tight end coming my way and a backside slant behind me. Being able to see that stuff, it’s difficult.”
As if to remind us that he’s still mortal, Tagovailoa had a walking boot on his left foot as he headed to his press conference. Tagovailoa showed no signs during the game that his injured left ankle, which he said this week was about 80 to 85 percent, slowed him at all. He scrambled when needed, made plays with his legs and showed the ability to cut crisply.
“I can’t say if I felt a lot better out there or if I was the same,” he said. “But I think we’re continuing to make progress with getting better, going to rehab, treatment, 24-hour treatment protocol is still on the line for us now.”
The dispiriting part for the Sooners was that they played decent coverage at times. On the second touchdown of the game, for example, a Sooner defensive back had Henry Ruggs so closely guarded that he was actually holding one of his arms. But Tua dropped a perfect parabola and Ruggs managed to snare it with one hand.
“When you have a quarterback like that with the talent we have at receiver, Tua trusts us to make plays,” Ruggs said. “[He] puts it in the air and we go get it.”
Any Tua ode must include the qualifier that his brilliance is enabled by a stout offensive line, resplendent receivers and a run game that commands a defense’s full attention. Coordinator Mike Locksley has built a strong system around him, and Nick Saban has showed an open-mindedness to evolve. But as Tua’s outlandish 2018 comes to a close and a chance at a second national title awaits, it’s impossible not to gape and stare at the perfect spirals squeezed into the smallest places.
“A ton of respect,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said. He added: “He’s got a magnetic personality, and obviously he’s a fantastic player.”
It’s hard to imagine what he can become in the next calendar year.
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