By Jon Sauber | @JonSauber
Sports Capital Journalism Program
ATLANTA — DeVonta Smith hauled in a 41-yard strike from Tua Tagovailoa, just before his body crossed the goal line, to complete one of the most remarkable comebacks in the history of the Alabama Crimson Tide. Smith threw a hand in the air as he sprinted, realizing his accomplishment.
The Tide had just taken down the Georgia Bulldogs in overtime to win the College Football Playoff National Championship, 26-23, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It didn’t take long before Smith crossed the end zone and he was mauled by teammates who raced across the field and piled on top of him. The field was flooded with crimson and confetti as Alabama celebrated their national championship victory, its 17th in history, the fifth in nine years, and very possibly the most unlikely.
Smith was a true freshman who had only caught seven passes all season, but said there were no nerves on the game’s final play. He added that he saw an opportunity as soon as the play call came in. The catch was the only one Smith made Monday night.
“I looked at Tua, and said ‘Trust me bro’ and he nodded his head at me,” Smith said. “Then when I saw that they were in Cover Two, I knew I had a chance.”
Just one play prior, Alabama appeared to be in trouble. Trailing 23-20 after Rodrigo Blankenship’s 51-yard field goal gave Georgia the lead in overtime, Tagovailoa had just taken a 16-yard sack that appeared to take Alabama out of field goal range.
Junior defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick said his confidence in the offense never wavered after the sack. “[My emotions] never really changed,” Fitzpatrick said, “I knew I had faith in him and I knew he was gonna do his job. People make mistakes and we were ready to go.”
Tagovailoa, who was thrust into the spotlight as a true freshman, led the team back from a 13-0 halftime deficit. After the game was over and the trophy was handed out, he sprinted to the stands where his family was waiting.
Tagovailoa ran into the tunnel leading to the locker room where he said he just wanted to enjoy the championship with his teammates and his family. He finished the game with 166 passing yards and three touchdowns for the Crimson Tide.
Tagovailoa wasn’t just a game-changer in overtime, as he affected the game plan almost immediately for Alabama. The Crimson Tide threw the ball 24 times in the second half and overtime, compared to only eight in the first half.
At halftime, Alabama coach Nick Saban made the bold decision to pull struggling starting quarterback Jalen Hurts in favor of Tagovailoa.
Hurts had 47 rushing yards, but he completed just 3 of 8 passes for 21 yards. Hurts answered questions with a smile on his face in the locker room, and said that he was happy that the team won the national championship, even though he had been pulled from the game.
“The goal coming into this game was to win the game,” Hurts said, “and that’s what we did as a team.”
Hurts said he was happy for Tagovailoa, saying that he stepped up when his number was called.
Tagovailoa wasn’t the only player to step up in a time of adversity. Fitzpatrick, the Crimson Tide’s defensive Swiss Army Knife, had dismissed speculation that he wasn’t healthy.
But after the game, Fitzpatrick admitted that he was hurt as he stared into his locker for what could be the last time. When asked how close to 100 percent healthy he was, Fitzpatrick responded “not close” and said that he was suffering from a bruised kidney.
Like most of the Alabama players, Fitzpatrick also heaped praise on Tagovailoa for his performance in the second half.
“I’m not surprised [by how he played],” Fitzpatrick said, “Tua’s a great quarterback and has great composure.”
Fitzpatrick added that the team had faith in the freshman quarterback if he had to come into the game for any reason. “He’ll make a couple mistakes because he’s a freshman, but he really led the offense and led the team,” Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick, who finished with five tackles including a tackle for loss, also praised the youth of the team, who stepped up in a big way for the Crimson Tide on Monday night.
Senior linebacker Rashaan Evans echoed that praise, especially for sophomore linebacker Mack Wilson, who lead the team with 12 tackles. “[There are] big time guys coming back next year, like Mack Wilson, who’s gonna lead the defense in tackles,” Evans said.
He added that he was happy to help his younger teammates achieve something that he had also achieved as an underclassman. “Now they [have] a natty under their belt and they’ll be able to do it again next year,” Evans said.
Like Fitzpatrick, Evans was effusive with praise for Tagovailoa. “Tua had an amazing game,” Evans said, “He answered the call and I’m so happy for him to be able to have the opportunity [to play].”
Tagovailoa had entered the game with a 13-point deficit, facing a defense that had been dominant all season. But that didn’t faze him. After throwing an interception early in the second half, Tagovailoa had reassured Saban.
What did he say? According to Saban, the freshman said he would learn from his mistake.
“Well, the issue was we missed a signal,” Saban said. “In other words, everybody was running a running play, and he thought it was a passing play. So it causes a problem when all the receivers are blocking instead of running a pass route, and then it sort of quadruples the problem when the quarterback throws it to him, anyway.”
Saban smiled a thin smile. There was laughter in the interview room.
He turned to his right, toward his championship quarterback.
“But we learn from those things, right?”
“Yes, sir,” Tagovailoa said.
That level of poise would immediately became part of Alabama football lore, taking its place with the onside kick two years ago against Clemson, the punishing victory over Miami in the 1993 Sugar Bowl, the goalline stand against Penn State in the 1979 Sugar Bowl and the glorious moments of the Bryant era.
Now Tagovailoa had helped create another of those moments. Now there was the unlikely story about the birth of a star. A star who unseated a playoff-caliber quarterback in the middle of a crimson crisis and took his team to new heights.