The Crimson White

Jalen Hurts leads fourth quarter comeback, claiming 27th SEC Championship

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Jalen Hurts leads fourth quarter comeback, claiming 27th SEC Championship

By Grant Nicholls

By Grant Nicholls

By Grant Nicholls

By Grant Nicholls

James Ogletree, Staff Writer

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Atlanta– If Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams and J.K. Rowling sat around a table and deliberated for hours, they couldn’t have thought up a better fantasy script than that.

Alabama’s dream of a second straight national championship-winning season remains alive. The dream of becoming the first college football team in 121 years to play 15 games and win them all is still as possible as ever. Every record, every distinction – all one step closer after a 35-28 Alabama win over Georgia in the SEC Championship.

It had everything a game requires to cement it into sporting lore. It had compelling characters: Alabama coach Nick Saban, the undisputed king of college football, armed with perhaps his most formidable team ever, marched into hostile territory to do battle with his protege, Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who was attempting to launch his own campaign to ascend to the pinnacle of the sport.

It had adversity. Heisman Trophy front-runner Tua Tagovailoa, the pioneer of what some have already called the best college football team ever, had the worst game of his career. He completed a career-low 40 percent of his passes, threw a career-high two interceptions, and didn’t finish the game.

And it had the most schmaltzy, Hollywood finish anyone could have envisioned: Junior quarterback Jalen Hurts, whose ineffectiveness in January’s national championship win over Georgia helped spawn Tagovailoa’s assault on history, relieved the starter when he left the game with an ankle injury in the fourth quarter.

All the backup – whose main storyline since January has been where he will choose to play next season – did was go 5-for-5 on third down, pass for one touchdown and run for another, and pilot the top-ranked Crimson Tide to its 27th SEC Championship.

“I’ve probably never more proud of a player than Jalen,” Saban said. “You’ve got to have a tremendous amount of character and class to put team first, knowing your situation is not what it used to be.

“… Jalen is going to be a more successful person in life because of what he went through – not winning 26 games, but what he went through this year trying to be the kind of person who had to support other people after he was a star player.”

Even before Tagovailoa’s injury, no one would have blamed Saban if he had opted to reverse the roles from a year ago and insert Hurts for him. The team couldn’t keep itself ahead of the sticks, facing five third downs of 10 or more yards with Tagovailoa at the helm and predictably failing to convert any of them.

Three incompletions were the best results of any of those five plays, which included a wide-open drop 40 yards downfield, a goal-line interception, and a 10-yard sack followed by an intentional grounding foul.

The trouble started from the first quarter, which became just the fifth out of 49 quarters Alabama had played in which it did not score a point. The Crimson Tide came out swinging, driving to the Georgia six-yard line in just two plays after a long punt return by freshman Jaylen Waddle.

An off-target pass from Tagovailoa followed, then an 11-yard sack that closely resembled the one the quarterback took in overtime of the national championship. Then, disaster.

Tagovailoa fired a pass to Jerry Jeudy in the end zone, but Bulldogs safety Richard LeCounte III snatched the ball out of the air, and with it all of the Crimson Tide’s momentum.

On third-and-5 on Alabama’s next drive, Tagovailoa hurled his trademark deep ball downfield to a wide-open Irv Smith Jr., who slowed down and turned around to corral the slightly underthrown ball.

Except he dropped it. Alabama punted.

The next drive was temporarily stunted by another drop, this one by Jeudy. The drive ended with a one-yard rushing touchdown by junior running back Josh Jacobs that tied the game at seven, but the Crimson Tide’s problems didn’t disappear.

“We had drops that we hadn’t had all season,” offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said. “We just kind of played tight, which was uncharacteristic of us.”

Nothing was more uncharacteristic than the two interceptions thrown by Tagovailoa, who to this point in the season had put on a clinic in how to protect the ball. Both occurred within the Georgia five-yard line on passes to the end zone. He was also off the mark on several other passes he would usually complete with pinpoint accuracy.

The Bulldogs defense played a big part in that, making Tagovailoa uncomfortable with frequent and diverse blitzes.

“There were a lot of ‘one-hitters’, where [Georgia] would show one thing that they never showed before and they’d only show it once,” junior offensive tackle Jonah Williams said. “So the onus is on us to be able to pick it up, and I knew we had our struggles there but we made the plays we needed to make to win the game.”

For a long while, before the game surpassed being merely entertaining and developed into the stuff of legend, it seemed that a heads-up play by Jacobs would be the turning point.

Georgia had just taken a 14-point lead, the Crimson Tide’s largest deficit since September 2016 at Ole Miss. On Alabama’s first play of its next drive, Jacobs burst through the offensive line and swerved through defenders for a 59-yard gain, the game’s longest play.

Moments later, he fumbled at the goal line, appearing to commit Alabama’s second goal-line blunder of the first half at a crucial time. Jacobs, however, had the wherewithal to reach over his head and pick up the ball in the end zone, scoring a touchdown that seemed to steady the defending champions and brought the game within one score.

In its last two games Alabama’s offense had started sluggishly before returning to its usual prowess in the second half. There was no reason to think this game would be any different – until it was.

Tagovailoa’s sack and intentional grounding foul gifted Georgia good field position to start the second half. The Bulldogs capitalized, again expanding the lead to two scores.

A glimmer of hope from Georgia missing a 30-yard field goal quickly faded after Tagovailoa’s second interception, the bleakest moment of the game for Alabama.

After that, though, the tides began to turn.

Saban’s offense finally got the spark it needed when Waddle, perhaps the team’s most explosive player, left Georgia defenders in his wake on a simple crossing route that turned into a 51-yard touchdown.

The Bulldogs offense had stalled, but the defense was still putting consistent pressure on Tagovailoa. With 12 minutes remaining in a seven-point game, Williams, a first-team All-American, was pushed backward into Tagovailoa and stepped on the quarterback’s ankle.

Tagovailoa lay on the Mercedes-Benz Stadium field for a few minutes, clutching his face mask in pain, before heading to the medical tent.

Saban said after the game that he doesn’t believe the injury is significant, but the rest of the night belonged to Hurts.

“I got him on the phone and said, Let’s call the stuff you like,” Locksley said. “We went through a series of plays that he really likes, stuff that he executes in practice.”

The junior’s first play was a third-and-12. He hung in the pocket, calmly found Smith Jr. over the middle for a 13-yard gain, ending the 0-for-6 skid. Three more third-down conversions followed, including a rollout to his right where he found Jeudy in the end zone to tie the game at 28.

Following an explicable decision by Georgia to fake a punt on fourth-and-11 near midfield, Alabama got the ball back. Hurts completed passes of 19 and 16 yards to get inside the Bulldogs’ 15-yard line. Then came the moment that Hurts did what he does best: calmly execute his responsibility in the face of extreme pressure.

“It was a called run,” Locksley said. “It was a run that he requested.”

The former SEC Offensive Player of the Year ran through an opening in the offensive line and was scarcely touched on his way to the end zone. On the sideline, Tagovailoa was waiting to congratulate him.

When Georgia failed to complete a 40-yard Hail Mary pass to end the game, the storybook comeback was complete. The roles had been reversed, and Hurts had become the hero once again.

“Adversity has to strike sometime, and it happened tonight,” Smith Jr. said. “I’m just so proud of this team and how we responded to it.”

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Jalen Hurts leads fourth quarter comeback, claiming 27th SEC Championship