By Jess Nicholas
Dec. 2, 2018
There will come a time in most all of our lives when someone will ask us to step into a private office, take a seat, and have a talk about the future.
They will talk to us about time, its ravages upon both the body and the mind. They will smile softly at us and ask whether we had thought about our own future, what we would do after our career was over, and maybe we should take a day or two and go discuss it with our family.
For every professional athlete who has ever lived, or who will ever live, this conversation has come or will be coming at some point in their lives – the day when the owner or the general manager or the coach will ask for the keys to the locker room, and after some kind of ceremony attended by well-wishers, the old player will shuffle out the door, uniform in hand, with a car loaded full of golf clubs or fishing gear waiting in the parking lot. For those of us in the business sector, we’ll get our own version of “the talk” at some point, when our minds have slowed or our legs won’t carry us out on the road anymore. “Go rest high on that mountain, son, your work on earth is done.”
College sports have no such ritual, of course. It’s part of what makes those sports so intriguing. There’s a ticking clock over your head the moment you step onto campus. Four years (or five, if you sit one of the first four out), and you’re gone. Out the door. Sayonara. Thanks for all you did here.
A pro, on the other hand, might find himself used up and spent by the time he has just a year or two on the big stage. Or he might find himself like Tom Brady, who sometimes looks like a threat to play into his 50s. There’s no set timeframe for when the eventual end will come.
College athletes shouldn’t have to endure “the talk.”
But Jalen Hurts did.
They say if you want to grow up fast, get yourself some grown-up problems to deal with. Jalen Hurts saw his problems come along in the form of a wise-beyond-his-years true freshman quarterback named Tua Tagovailoa.
It’s not that Hurts and Tagovailoa ever carried themselves as rivals. Quite the opposite has occurred, actually, as they have comported themselves as consummate teammates, even close friends. But there’s no denying the truth that the reason Hurts spent most of the year carrying a clipboard is because Tagovailoa showed up on the Alabama campus. Tagovailoa’s rise to the top of the depth chart started with a miraculous comeback win over Georgia in the 2018 College Football Championship, a game Hurts started.
It was bookended by another miraculous comeback over Georgia, this time in the 2018 SEC Championship Game, and this time with Hurts playing the role of Bama’s savior after Tagovailoa was the one to falter.
In the middle, Nick Saban, at some point, had to have “the talk” with Hurts. He had to let him know that his best simply wasn’t good enough to hold off Tagovailoa and keep his job as the starter. Not only was Hurts’ clock ticking, Tagovailoa’s was ticking more loudly, more urgently.
So when left tackle Jonah Williams inadvertently stepped on Tagovailoa’s right ankle and ended his day, and Jalen Hurts was asked to come into a game Alabama was in grave danger of losing, there was more at stake than just a game. There was, at stake, the legacy of a popular player who most Alabama fans have hoped would get a shot at redemption like this. And in a town that is increasingly becoming the hub of American movie-making, here came a script so unbelievable, yet so real, it was a minor surprise that Alabama didn’t get awarded an Oscar along with the SEC championship trophy.
Going forward, there doesn’t seem to be anything seriously wrong with Tagovailoa’s ankle. He’ll need a couple of weeks of rest, and he’ll get it over the Christmas break. It’s entirely likely that the last snaps Jalen Hurts will ever play in an Alabama uniform came Saturday in Mercedes-Benz Stadium – the same stadium against the same opponent that caused him to lose his job in the first place.
But forever in place, from now until the day that football ceases to be played, is Jalen Hurts’ legacy, and someone should carve it into the precast concrete of Mercedes-Benz Stadium for good measure: Here played a true teammate, unselfish and honorable, a good man and leader of men, a champion. Here was where Jalen Hurts was finally appreciated for the winner he always was.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Georgia:
1. Alabama almost lost the game where it thought it held its biggest edge – up front. There was absolutely no one expecting Georgia’s defensive line to create the level or frequency of problems it was able to create for Alabama Saturday.
Georgia’s defensive linemen had proven to be downright impotent at getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and Alabama finally had its best offensive line back on the field and healthy. But Tagovailoa never got comfortable, and Alabama’s offensive line couldn’t keep him clean. Alabama seemed to have better success, even early in the game, in running the football, and in retrospect, offensive coordinator Mike Locksley should have taken greater advantage. But it’s still not entirely clear how Georgia managed to get such an effective pass rush early in the game.
Flipping to the other side of the ball, Alabama gave up far too many rushing yards in the first half. While Georgia’s average yards per carry was just 3.9 for the whole game, it didn’t feel that way. Alabama had early success against RG Trey Hill, but couldn’t sustain it. The OL-DL cross-matchups were probably where Tide coaches were expecting their best chance at victory, but instead, Georgia flipped the script. Those matchups nearly became Bama’s biggest nightmare, along with …
2. Let’s face it, Tua had a bad day. Tagovailoa’s greatest shortcoming is he’s not particularly durable. He was injured first on an early sack, got dinged again a quarter later and then Jonah Williams finished him off. But right out of the gate – D’Andre Wright’s sack of Tagovailoa on Bama’s fourth offensive snap, which was followed up by an interception on the fifth snap – the ankle injury created great difficulty for Tagovailoa and affected many throws.
There is also the lingering problem of Tagovailoa refusing to throw the ball away when the play breaks down, which exposes him to contact from pursuing rushers. Whether this game will be enough to cost him the Heisman Trophy remains to be seen, but it’s fair to question whether Alabama would have been able to win the game had a gimped Tagovailoa gone the distance.
3. Mental errors, dropped passes and general sloppiness were unbecoming of a team as good as the Tide. Alabama’s wide receiver corps came into this game having dropped so few passes this season – especially in critical situations – that we can’t actually remember even one to cite here. By the time the second half started, though, most Alabama fans would have sworn the game balls had been dipped in Vaseline salve.
The daftness wasn’t just constrained to the wide receiver/tight end corps: the coaches’ decision to rush the punter late in the first half could have blown up in Bama’s faces, and the near-abandonment of the running game in the first half in favor of overexposing a hurt quarterback almost had equally destructive results.
4. Defensive adjustments and contributions from lesser-known players was what saved the day. Nick Saban mentioned Bama made some formation-related adjustments at the half to counter unexpected Georgia offensive wrinkles, and from about the second month of the regular season onward, Alabama has consistently been one of the best adjustment teams in the country. It was especially evident against a Georgia running game that got 78 of its 153 net rushing yards in the second quarter alone.
Alabama also got a lot of help from players that are usually in the background. Star safety Shyheim Carter continued a month of solid play by being everywhere he needed to be late in the game. Dime safety Jared Mayden returned from a first-half targeting suspension to take away a lot of Georgia’s deeper routes, and he broke up a pass at the goal line on Georgia’s final drive and may have actually broken up the final pass of the game (it was credited to Mack Wilson officially, but video replay shows Mayden’s hand may have been the one to deflect the ball).
Patrick Surtain II got more targets than he has been accustomed to, and responded with 7 tackles and a pass broken up. LaBryan Ray’s late sack of Georgia QB Jake Fromm was a huge play.
5. Finally, special teams had a big hand in winning the game. It didn’t start off that way, as Keaton Anderson roughed Georgia punter Jake Carmada at the end of the first half, but overall, Bama came out on top. Georgia PK Rodrigo Blankenship inexplicably missed a field goal attempt from 30 yards out. Bama’s Joseph Bulovas didn’t attempt a field goal, but he made all his PAT kicks and his kickoff work was spectacular. Two short directional kickoffs confounded Georgia’s return men, resulting in an unfielded kick that pinned the Bulldogs deep and a muffed kickoff that nearly turned disastrous for Georgia.
Bama’s punter, Mike Bernier, actually came out of the game with a higher net punting average than did Carmada. But the play that will be talked about forever by angry Georgia fans will be Kirby Smart’s not-so-smart call to run a fake punt on 4th-and-11 from midfield, late in the game with the game tied, against Alabama’s “punt safe” alignment. The call was unsuccessful, and Bama ended up with a short field for what would turn out to be Jalen Hurts’ game-winning touchdown drive.
Other analysts will spend more time on that call than we will, because there are only so many ways one can say “potentially the worst call in major-game SEC history.” Instead, we’ll close by simply giving Alabama’s special teams a well-deserved pat on the back.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN