ATLANTA — While some of the Alabama players were gasping for oxygen on the sideline, others were committing unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and at least a couple were trying to prevent a teammate from punching an assistant coach, a teenager was saving the Crimson Tide from the brink of a public collapse.
Alabama trailed by 13 points at halftime of the national title game when Tagovailoa took over the offense and calmly engineered one of the more improbable comebacks in college football championship history.
For many, his mere presence in the game was a surprise. Tagovailoa (pronounced: Tongue-oh-vie-LOH-a) had not played in Alabama’s previous four games and was used almost exclusively in eight others to mop up after the regular starter, Jalen Hurts, ran up a big score.
But this time, Tagovailoa was being asked to bring his team back from a 13-0 deficit in only 30 minutes, and in the glare of the brightest of spotlights.
“I knew he could do that,” Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley said. “I knew it when he first showed up to summer practices. We all saw it. That kid is composed.”
What coach Nick Saban, Ridley and the rest of Alabama’s football program knew long before Monday’s 26-23 overtime win against Georgia, was that Tagovailoa is precocious, bold and extremely talented. Without him, the Tide (13-1) most likely would not have won its fifth national title in the past nine years.
Alabama offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has a certain way of looking at the throwing accuracy of quarterbacks. All of them can drop back seven steps and hit a house with the ball. Some of them can hit the door. A few can even hit the doorknob.
“Tua,” Daboll said, “can hit the keyhole.”
That precision and power coming out of Tagovailoa’s left arm gave the coaching staff the confidence to sit Hurts, who was ineffective in the first half, and place their fortunes in hands of a freshman. The changes were immediate. Tagovailoa drove Alabama to a touchdown on his first possession. Then a field goal, and another. Then a touchdown pass to tie the score, and another in overtime to win it.
Born in Ewa Beach, on the island of Oahu in Hawaii, Tagovailoa is the latest in a string of record-setting high school passers from Saint Louis School, a group that includes former University of Hawaii star Timmy Chang and Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. Mariota is chasing his own championship this week; on Saturday night, he will lead the Tennessee Titans against the New England Patriots in an NFL playoff game.
Tagovailoa met Mariota, then a Saint Louis star, at a passing camp. Only 9, Tagovailoa had barged his way into a camp intended for high school quarterbacks, but much as he did Monday, he performed so well that the older boys, especially Mariota, let him stick around.
Tagovailoa eventually followed Mariota at Saint Louis and still considers him a role model for Polynesian children.
“He is very big for our state,” Tagovailoa said. “For kids back home, making our state proud is the biggest thing, and to be able to do this on a national level, on a big stage, is just a great opportunity.”
Tagovailoa demonstrated his self-confidence simply by enrolling at Alabama, where Hurts, a sophomore, was firmly established as the starter. While Tua’s parents came to Alabama with him to ease his transition to college, he said early Tuesday, he still feels homesick at times.
“The biggest difference from Hawaii and Alabama would probably be there’s no beaches,” he said, presumably referring only to the Tuscaloosa campus. “But other than that, the people are very nice.”
Religion, Tagovailoa said, is an important aspect of his life, and he added that faith contributes to the remarkably calm demeanor he displayed in the hectic final moments of Monday’s game. He prays before every drive begins, asking for inner peace.
Yet as good as he was Monday, Tagovailoa was not perfect. At times he still had the markings of a freshman: He threw an interception in the third quarter when all his receivers, expecting a run, were downfield blocking, and he almost fouled up the last few seconds of regulation, forcing Saban to put Hurts back in to manage the clock.
Then, on his first play of overtime, with Alabama trailing by 3, he allowed himself to get sacked, a gaffe that cost the Tide 16 yards.
“That was a lot,” Daboll said. “It put us out of field-goal range.”
It was especially troubling because Alabama’s kicker, Andy Pappanastos, already had missed two previous field-goal attempts, including a shanked kick at the end of regulation that would have won the game. With nearly everyone wondering whether Pappanastos was up to a pressure-filled long kick, Alabama needed yards.
So on 2nd-and-26, Tagovailoa stepped back into the pocket, looked right to divert a defender and threw a spiral into the arms of his fellow freshman DeVonta Smith, who never broke stride.
Tagovailoa had thrown it right in the keyhole.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.