On the first play of Alabama's overtime possession, Tua Tagovailoa made the second-worst mistake a quarterback can make. On the second play of overtime, Tagovailoa made a championship-winning play that will forever be etched in the minds of Alabama fans, Georgia fans and college football fans alike.
After leading Alabama back from a 13-point deficit upon entering the game at the start of the third quarter, Tagovailoa, a true freshman, took a sack for a loss of 16 yards on Crimson Tide's first overtime play, trailing by three. All the mistake did was make what came next even more impressive: Tagovailoa fired a 41-yard touchdown pass to fellow freshman DeVonta Smith to beat Georgia 26-23 and win the national championship.
It all happened via a sentence that you may not expect to hear: Nick Saban benched his starting quarterback at halftime and turned to a true freshman, who threw a second-and-long bomb on a four verticals play -- a staple of Air Raid offenses -- to a freshman receiver with the national title on the line.
After Jalen Hurts and the Alabama offense were ineffective in the first half, Saban decided to roll with Tagovailoa, a five-star recruit from Hawaii who played almost exclusively during garbage time in his first season in Tuscaloosa. Tagovailoa threw an interception on a miscommunication and took the sack that could have cost Alabama the game, but he repeatedly made everyone forget about the mistakes by providing a jolt to the Crimson Tide offense, then making the throw that won Alabama its fifth national title in nine years, after it trailed 13-0 at halftime and 20-7 in the third quarter.
"We called four verticals on that play," Tagovailoa told reporters afterward. "After the sack, we just got up and took it to the next play. And throughout that process, we got the ball, it looked like they were running two-trap. The corner trapped on that single receiver side, and I held the safety in the middle as the over was coming. I looked back out, and Smitty was wide-open, so I hit him."
Tagovailoa took the snap from the shotgun with one back and four receivers, including Smith isolated to the left, the short side of the field. Upon dropping back, Tagovailoa's eyes went right, holding the Georgia safeties in place long enough before turning left and firing the long ball. Smith raced past the cornerback, Malkom Parrish, and safety Dominick Sanders was too late to arrive. Smith hauled in the perfect pass at the goal line, turning a foreboding second-and-26, for a team with kicking woes after missing at the end of regulation, into a walk-off touchdown.
The pass was just the 77th of Tagovailoa's college career. It was Smith's first catch of the night and eighth of his college career. Against Georgia, true freshmen led Alabama in passing yards (Tagovailoa), rushing yards (Najee Harris) and receiving yards (Smith), despite the fact that the Crimson Tide returned their top passer, top four rushers and top pass-catcher from the team that came so close to claiming a national championship last year.
"Us freshmen, we go in with the ones sometimes," Tagovailoa said of how freshmen prepare in practice. "We trade reps with the ones. We go in with the twos. And I think preparation leading up to this point has been the key thing with our offensive coaches helping us throughout the process. And just building the trust within each other, from the O-line to the receivers creating a bond with each other. I think that's helped us build confidence coming into this game to where, if you've got to go in, if your number's called, then you've got to do what you've got to do to give the team the best placement -- or how should I say this, to give the team the best opportunity to win the game."
DeVonta Smith, who had the game-winning TD, was committed to Georgia for some time while in high school.- ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 9, 2018
Alabama offered Tua Tagovailoa only after they lost the commitment of Jake Fromm
Clemson beat Alabama in Tampa last year on Deshaun Watson's two-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with one second left. This time, Alabama was responsible for inflicting the late-game pain on the opposition. Despite missing what would have been a game-winning field goal on the last play of regulation, Alabama turned around and responded to Georgia's overtime field goal with a walk-off touchdown from long range that will go a long way toward erasing any lingering pain from last year.
Prior to Monday, Alabama's most memorable championship plays were a goal-line stand against Penn State in the 1979 Sugar Bowl and an onside kick in the playoff championship against Clemson two years ago. Now, the Crimson Tide add an offensive play to that list, a perfect connection between freshmen to lift Alabama to its most dramatic championship glory yet.