True freshman Tua Tagovailoa hit DeVonta Smith with a 41-yard touchdown pass in overtime early Tuesday morning, giving Alabama a dramatic 26-23 win over Georgia in the championship game of the College Football Playoff at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
“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,” Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said.
The Bulldogs (13-2) got the ball first in overtime and took a three-point lead on a 51-yard field goal by Rodrigo Blankenship. After Tagovailoa was sacked for a 16-yard loss on first down, he found Smith wide open down the left side for the play that turned him into an instant legend in Alabama.
Alabama forced overtime when Tagovailoa hit Calvin Ridley for a 7-yard touchdown pass on a 4th-down play with 3:49 remaining, capping its rally from a 13-point halftime deficit.
The Crimson Tide had a chance to win it at the end of regulation, but Andy Pappanastos pulled a 36-yard field goal try wide left as time expired. It was his first miss in 14 career attempts of 36 yards or shorter.
Blankenship finished 14- and 13-play drives with 41 and 27-yard field goals for a 6-0 Georgia lead with 7:33 left in the second quarter. The Bulldogs made it a 13-0 game at halftime when wide receiver Mecole Hardman took a direct snap and scored on a 1-yard run with seven seconds remaining.
Saban told his quarterbacks at halftime that he was going make the switch from Jalen Hurts to Tagovailoa and see how that impacted the offense.
“I just thought we needed to throw the ball in the game, and I thought he could do it better,” Saban said of the true freshman out of Hawaii.
Tagovailoa had seen only mop-up duty through the course of the regular season until being thrown into the spotlight in the national title game.
“I found out when we were in the locker room,” Tagovailoa said. “Coach brought the quarterbacks together and made the statement that, ‘Tua, you’re going to start the second half and we’re going to rotate the quarterbacks … see how things go. And we went from there.”
The move to Tagovailoa paid dividends on his second possession. He led a seven-play, 56-yard drive that ended with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Henry Ruggs with 8:52 left in the third quarter.
Georgia responded exactly two minutes later with a stunning score. Freshman Jake Fromm heaved a bomb down the right sideline for Hardman, who made the catch, eluded a tackle and tight-roped 80 yards to the end zone for a 20-7 advantage.
Pappanastos brought Alabama within 20-13 with 43- and 30-yard field goals, giving Tagovailoa the chance to play the hero’s role.
Tagovailoa started the second half and completed 14 of 24 passes for 166 yards and three touchdowns with an interception. Fromm was 16 of 32 for 232 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.
It was the sixth national championship for Saban, tying him with Bear Bryant for the most in the bowl era. This one denied the Bulldogs their first national title since 1980.
“It’s not just about winning a championship,” Saban said. “Every team wants to be successful and as a coach, you want to see them reach their full potential. But as a college coach, and the thing that I like about college coaching, you have an opportunity to affect people.
“The message to the team tonight after this game? ‘I hope that you take something from this game, and the resiliency that you showed in this game, and it helps you be more successful in life. So, it’s not just about winning a championship.”
Georgia coach Kirby Smart, a former assistant under Saban, said he expected the Crimson Tide to make a switch at quarterback coming out of halftime.
“We’d seen him on tape,” Smart said. “We told everyone at halftime that there was no question that they were going to him. Because they were struggling and they needed some momentum.
“He provided them some juice, and got them some momentum. He’s a good player.”
Hurts was engaged on the sideline throughout the second half, talking with coaches and encouraging Tagovailoa.
“He was going to step in and do his thing,” Hurts said when asked what his thoughts were when Saban told him of the quarterback change at halftime. “We have a lot of guys in the QB room that play really well. He stepped in and did his thing … did his thing for the team. He’s built for stuff like this, he has that impact. I’m so happy for him and so happy for this team.