Rapid Reaction: Alabama won but lost Tua. Was the gamble worth it?
For about 90 minutes Saturday, all was well with Tua Tagovailoa.
Alabama’s junior quarterback, who started on his surgically repaired ankle for the second straight week against huge underdog Mississippi State, had sparkled in leading the Crimson Tide to a 28-point lead and visibly urged coach Nick Saban for just one more 1st-half series.
That politicking promptly threw Alabama’s offense and future College Football Playoff hopes into chaos — as Tagovailoa was injured yet again during a 3rd-down scramble and had to be carted off with an right hip injury.
Reports later confirmed it was a season-ending dislocated hip.
Oh, by the way … fifth-ranked Alabama won the game 38-7. But all thoughts — in Starkville and throughout the Tide Nation — were both with Tagovailoa and questioning why Saban allowed his gimpy quarterback back into a lopsided rout instead of going with Mac Jones.
“That was going to be his last series,” Saban told ESPN’s Molly McGrath at halftime. “We were going to do the 2-minute drill before the half with him just for practice. Of course, have to block (for) him better so he doesn’t get sacked. We were going to put Mac in but decided to do the 2-minute drill.
“I never worry about players getting hurt. You certainly don’t want to see anybody get hurt, especially him.”
ESPN’s cameras caught Tagovailoa shaking hands with his offensive mates after a 4th Najee Harris touchdown made it 35-7 midway through the 2nd quarter — as if to indicate that Tagovailoa’s day was done after he went 14-for-18 for 256 yards and 2 TDs. That belief was strengthened as Jones was actively warming up while the Tide defense was forcing the 4th Bulldog punt of the half.
And between series, Tagovailoa entered the offensive huddle that Jones was a part of and appeared to sweet-talk his way back onto the field.
Just 3 plays later, it happened. Again.
Tagovailoa was forced out of the pocket and threw an incomplete pass as Leo Lewis and Marquiss Spencer pressured him. Lewis and Spencer put their full weight on Tagovailoa as he hit the turf. Tagovailoa immediately rolled over in pain with blood coming from his nose. He could not put any weight on his right leg when trainers helped him up and the quarterback was helped to the injury cart in obvious pain.
Tagovailoa was taken to the Davis-Wade Stadium X-ray facilities for evaluation, and departed the stadium via ambulance in the 3rd quarter.
Just 90 minutes prior, though, all was well.
Donning some soft spikes instead of the usual long cleats and eschewing some of his lateral pregame warmup routine, Tagovailoa otherwise gave off no lingering effects from his arthroscopic right ankle surgery 27 days earlier.
Alabama’s sweet Hawaiian prince stunned the 1.7 million cowbells in attendance by hitting Jerry Jeudy in stride on a 37-yarder during Alabama’s first possession. That dart led to a 10-yard Harris TD run to begin the rout.
Alabama’s defense, shredded last week by Joe Burrow and LSU to the tune of 559 yards and 46 points, announced its presence with authority on the game’s very next play from scrimmage — as Shane Lee picked off Bulldogs QB Tommy Stevens to put the Tide back in the red zone.
That was all Tagovailoa needed, as the junior lofted a pass to a wide-open Harris for a 19-yard TD pass and a 14-0 lead — giving Alabama 14 points in 14 seconds and making Bulldog fans Google “transfer procedure to the SEC East” on their phones.
Having been punched square in the mouth early, Mississippi State chose to swing back on the next possession. Bailed out by a face mask call on a 3rd-down sack to keep the drive alive, Stevens matriculated the Bulldogs 75 yards down the field and RB Kylin Hill skipped in from the 1 to make it 14-7.
As the 1st quarter wore on, it became more and more apparent that the Bulldogs had little answer for Harris. Despite two penalties (including an offensive face-mask call that erased a Jeudy catch), Alabama put Harris in position to gain 40 yards from scrimmage on the drive, capped by a 5-yard TD run for a 21-7 lead.
Tagovailoa kicked off the 2nd quarter with exactly the kind of accuracy that he displayed up to the point he was injured against Tennessee, completing his 9th consecutive pass to Jaylen Waddle for a 35-yard TD that made it 28-7. Tagovailoa at that point had 193 passing yards and a 353.5 QB rating.
Alabama showed the kind of surgical precision that the Crimson Nation is used to on its next possession, as Tagovailoa picked apart the Bulldog secondary for 63 yards to set up Harris’ 4th score of the game: another 5-yard jaunt for a 35-7 lead.
Perhaps the only negative in Alabama’s performance in the 1st half pre-Tagovailoa injury was the way it played against the third team on the field — the officials. At one point late in the 2nd quarter, the Crimson Tide had more penalty yardage (81, on 6 flags) to Mississippi State’s offensive yards (55, on 18 plays).
Making matters worse for Alabama, defensive tackles Raekwon Davis and DJ Dale both left the game with injuries in the 1st half. Those departures left the Tide even thinner and more inexperienced on defense than it was entering Saturday.
Omitting coach Nick Saban’s first season at Alabama, the Tide has lost precisely 5 home games in 11 seasons including last week against LSU. In the games following those 5, including Saturday, Alabama has outscored its opponents by a combined 194-21.
It is also worth noting that in 3 of those 4 instances (2011, 2012 and 2015), Alabama rebounded with enough juice to win national championships No. 14, 15 and 16.
But none of that matters now for Alabama. It is Jones’ offense from here on. Do the pollsters and CFP committee take Tagovailoa’s season-ending injury into account when determining the Crimson Tide’s postseason fate?
Those answers didn’t come Saturday, only questions. Why play Tagovailoa in that final drive? Why play him at all against the overmatched Bulldogs? Can Jones guide the Tide well enough against Western Carolina and Auburn to make up for Tagovailoa’s loss?
The answers to those questions are unseen. Any certainty left in the back of an ambulance, lights blinking and sirens blaring in the bright Starkville sun.