That’s the down and distance that cemented then-freshman Tua Tagovailoa into Alabama football lore with his 41-yard touchdown pass to fellow freshman DeVonta Smith in the 2018 national championship game — an image that will last for generations of Alabama fans.
Inside Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, Mississippi, on Saturday, a more calamitous image was ingrained into the minds of not just Alabama fans, but the entire college football world. After Tagovailoa scrambled left out of the pocket to avoid the rush, two Bulldogs defenders barreled down and tackled the quarterback just after he released the ball, leaving him in a heap.
The usual deafening decibels of thousands of cowbells ringing inside Davis Wade were brought to a complete silence.
“Usually when someone goes down, they try to get up quick, but he was down for a few minutes,” said junior right tackle Jedrick Wills Jr., who was one of the first by Tagovailoa’s side after the injury. “I knew then that this was more serious than just his ankle.”
Tagovailoa was carted off the field and helicoptered to Birmingham, where he was diagnosed with a dislocated right hip and a posterior wall fracture. The Alabama medical staff consulted with many different experts across the country, and Houston was the destination that was settled upon to send the Ewa Beach, Hawaii, native for surgery on Monday.
Dr. Lyle Cain, the team’s orthopedic surgeon, said Monday that the surgery was successful and there is hope in the future for the record-setting quarterback.
“Tua’s prognosis is excellent, and we expect him to make a full recovery,” Cain said in a statement.
Tagovailoa’s trademark positive attitude and disposition have not been diminished during the past five days. Numerous videos and pictures show the quarterback singing and smiling with visiting teammates, and a single phone conversation with coach Nick Saban truly sums up his character.
“I called him Saturday night to cheer him up, and he cheered me up,” Saban said. “This is a guy that has a great spirit. We will all miss that spirit. The first thing he says to me [on Sunday] when I tell him ‘Good luck with your surgery,’ he says, ‘I just can’t wait to get back and see the game on Saturday.’”
The Crimson Tide has already begun preparations for its game Saturday against Western Carolina without No. 13 under center. The same message is reverberating in the locker room this week among the players as sophomore quarterback Mac Jones prepares to take over as the starter for the rest of the season.
“Everything is the same, and we approach every game the same way,” Smith said. “Mac approaches every week the same no matter what’s going on. He’s ready.”
Jones’ only start came against Arkansas in October. He was efficient, going 18 of 22 passing for 235 yards and three touchdowns. When Smith, a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist, was asked about Jones’ evasiveness in the pocket, he said he is the type to stay in the pocket as long as possible but that he’s got the ability to move.
“Nobody’s seen it yet,” Smith said.
Yes, it is Arkansas, and no, Jones is not the Heisman-caliber quarterback that Tagovailoa is. However, senior safety Jared Mayden will be the first to say that the entire team has the utmost confidence in Jones’ abilities.
“I tell him all the time, ‘I believe in you. When it’s your time, you’re going to shine.’ Whatever the team needs of Mac Jones, he’ll do it,” Mayden said. “He does everything with a mindset and determination that he brings forward when he’s in the locker room, meetings and on the field.”
Jones also brings a new element to the Alabama offense that Tagovailoa may not have brought as much of.
Mayden told a story about Jones’ freshman year on the scout team. The quarterback was throwing long passes against the defense one day in practice, many of which were to wide receiver Tyrell Shavers. Saban told Jones to stop throwing the same pass. Jones responded with, ‘Well, tell your defense to stop it.’
“There’s not too many people that go back and forth with Coach Saban,” Mayden said. “For a quarterback to have that type of charisma about himself, you know I’ll be behind him all the time.”
Jones will use this weekend as a tune-up game for the impending Iron Bowl in Auburn next Saturday as the 3-8 Catamounts come to Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Tagovailoa is expected to be back in Tuscaloosa this week, and that is a welcome sign to everyone associated with Alabama football; but for the rest of the season, it’s the Mac Jones show.