By CHRIS JOHNSON
January 09, 2018
The biggest fear about this All-SEC College Football Playoff national championship game is that a meeting between two defensive juggernauts with young quarterbacks, No. 3 seed Georgia and No. 4 seed Alabama, would result in a dull, low-scoring slog. The first half may have lacked intrigue, but the Crimson Tide, boosted by a quarterback change at halftime, scored 20 points over the final two quarters to force overtime and pulled out a 26-23 win to claim their fifth title in nine years—as well as the sixth of head coach Nick Saban’s career.
After going scoreless in the first half, Alabama pulled starting sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts, who won the SEC Offensive Player of the Year as a true freshman and carried a 25-2 record into Monday, in favor of highly regarded true freshman Tua Tagovailoa. A seemingly catastrophic opening play in the first overtime period in which Tagovailoa held the ball too long and took a 16-yard loss was followed by a pinpoint throw to fellow true freshman Devonta Smith for a 41-yard walk-off touchdown.
Long a subject of fascination among Alabama supporters who believed the dual-threat playmaker could elevate the Crimson Tide’s passing game, Tagovailoa made his biggest impact of the season on the biggest possible stage. The Crimson Tide’s offense repeatedly went nowhere against Georgia early on, and Tagovailoa ignited it with a remarkable blend of poise and execution, completing 14 of his 24 passing attempts for 166 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. In the process, he validated the potential suggested by his lofty recruiting pedigree and attained legendary status for a blueblood while a extending a dynasty that has defined this decade of college football.
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Few expected these two teams would wage a fast-paced shootout resembling the Rose Bowl, but the first two quarters amounted to the stylistic opposite of the Bulldogs’ thrilling double overtime victory over the Sooners that produced 102 points and 1,058 total yards. Alabama and Georgia combined for only 13 points and one touchdown, and the Crimson Tide failed to crack the 100-yard mark.
A missed 40-yard field goal preceded by a false start penalty on Alabama’s first possession set the tone for a frustrating half. Outside of a 31-yard scramble from Hurts, the Crimson Tide managed only 42 yards on 15 carries, good for 2.8 yards per carry. Entering Monday night, Alabama had led led the Football Bowl Subdivision at 5.8 yards per carry.
Hurts couldn’t offset the Crimson Tide’s inability to get going on the ground by consistently moving the ball through the air. He completed only three of his eight passing attempts for 21 yards. Alabama headed into the locker room with zero points, only one third-down conversion on six attempts and 94 yards on 3.91 yards per play, well below their season average heading into the title game of 6.70 YPP. The Crimson Tide replaced Hurts with Tagovailoa to open the third quarter.
Whereas Hurts couldn’t get into a rhythm against Georgia’s stingy defense before the break, Bulldogs true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm hit on multiple big throws after Alabama defensive back Tony Brown wrestled away his third passing attempt of the game from wide receiver Javon Wims, part of a sequence of seven consecutive passing plays to open the game for Georgia.
A pair of third-down completions from Fromm to Wims and sophomore wide receiver Riley Ridley, the younger brother of Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, helped move the Bulldogs into field-goal range, and place kicker Rodrigo Blankenship connected from 27 yards to put them up 6-0. And a 16-yard toss to junior wide receiver Terry Godwin late in the half set up a first and goal culminating in a one-yard touchdown from sophomore wide receiver Mecole Hardman off a direct snap.
Tagovailoa provided an infusion of offensive dynamism the Crimson Tide sorely needed. After a three and out on his first series, Tagovailoa showed flashes of why he was rated the top dual-threat QB in his class. After shrugging off multiple would-be tacklers and winding scrambling for a first down on a third and 7, Tagovailoa hit senior wide receiver Robert Foster on a 15-yard pass, then connected with true freshman wide receiver Henry Ruggs III on three straight throws, the last of which was a dart to the back of the end zone to cut Georgia’s lead to 13-7.
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Georgia wasted little time in delivering a response. On a third and 11, Hardman streaked past Brown down the right sideline, and Fromm hit him in stride for an 80-yard touchdown. It was a massive throw from a quarterback who’s continued to defy expectations since taking hold of the starting job early in the season after sophomore Jacob Eason went down with a knee injury, and held onto it even after Eason recovered before leading the Bulldogs to the brink of their first national championship in nearly four decades.
Alabama capitalized on an interception on the Bulldogs’ subsequent series from sophomore defensive lineman Raekwon Davis to knock in a 43-yard field goal, and a pair of long runs from true freshman tailback Najee Harris put the Crimson Tide in position to tack on three more points with a 30-yarder that narrowed Georgia’s lead to 20-13 with 9:24 left in regulation. The Crimson Tide the game on their next series.
Alabama junior running back Damien Harris was stuffed for a one-yard loss on a third and 3 at Georgia’s six yard line, and the Crimson Tide opted to go for it on fourth down. After a timeout, Tagovailoa dropped back, bought time while scrambling to his left, and rifled a seven-yard touchdown pass to junior Calvin Ridley, a pivotal grab in crunch time from from a first-round NFL draft prospect who’d spent most of the evening being outshined by his younger brother wearing a different uniform.
The Crimson Tide followed up by forcing a three and out, but they couldn’t close out the Bulldogs in the fourth quarter: Place kicker Andy Pappanastos missed a 40-yard field goal to send the game to overtime. After Georgia counterpart Blankenship drilled a 51-yarder on its first possession, Alabama didn’t let the Bulldogs have the ball back again. Tagovailoa took that seemingly costly sack on first down, only to connected with Smith for the 41-yard winner one play later.