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AMAZING ARM. Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Tuanigamanuolepola "Tua" Tagovailoa (#13) runs the ball during the second half of the National Collegiate Athletic Association football playoff championship game against the Georgia Bulldogs in Atlanta. With the Tide down by 13 points at halftime, Tagovailoa led his teammates to an overtime victory to take home the College Football Playoff national championship. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

From The Asian Reporter, V28, #3 (February 5, 2018), pages 23 & 24.

Another Samoan quarterback superstar emerges

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

I rarely write about the same league twice within a year, and I’ve never written about the same league in successive months, but this story was too incredible to pass up. As I wrote in January, Polynesian quarterbacks are fairly rare in college football — but the ones so far have been top-notch. During the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship game, sports fans witnessed the rise of Tuanigamanuolepola "Tua" Tagovailoa, the newest member of that elite group.

Asian sports fans (and Oregon Duck fans) know all about Marcus Mariota. In 2014, the Samoan sensation led the Ducks to a 12-1 regular season with a performance that won him the Heisman Trophy with the second-highest voting percentage ever. Mariota brought Oregon to the brink of a national championship, losing to Ohio State 20-42 in the first-ever College Football Playoff national championship game.

Instead of being the nationally known face of his top-ranked team, Tagovailoa was a virtually unknown freshman backup who had rarely seen the field for the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide. But Tua emerged from anonymity to orchestrate a dramatic comeback victory on the nation’s highest collegiate stage, becoming the first Samoan quarterback to lead his team to a national championship.

Obscured at Alabama, the 19-year-old quarterback was well-known back home. At Honolulu’s Saint Louis High School (also Mariota’s alma mater), Tagovailoa set the state record for career passing yards, throwing for 8,158 yards, eclipsing the record set by another API quarterback, Tommy Chang. Tagovailoa threw 84 touchdowns and ran for 27 more, finishing with a 24-5 career record as a starter and leading Saint Louis High to its fourth state championship during his senior year.

Such tremendous success made Tagovailoa a hot commodity for a lot of great colleges, but he chose Alabama, becoming their first-ever Hawai‘ian football prospect. Where others saw the obvious differences between his home state and Alabama, Tua saw only similarities. "We go to church every Sunday. People are treated like family there just like here … you want to be somewhere that feels like home and that’s what Alabama feels like," he said.

As a freshman, Tua faced an uncertain path to a starting role. Ahead of him on the depth chart was sophomore Jalen Hurts, who’d led Alabama to a national title game the season before. In that game, Alabama lost to Clemson, 31-35, on a dramatic last-second touchdown. And Hurts had a weak game, completing just 13 of 31 passes for 131 yards and running 10 times for 63 yards.

Still, Alabama coach Nick Saban named Hurts as his starter for the season, saying that Tua would get some playing time. True to his word, Saban started Hurts in every game, only allowing his backup from Hawai‘i to take the field when Alabama was comfortably ahead.

And then came the national championship game against the Georgia Bulldogs.

Georgia dominated the first half, taking a 13-0 lead while smothering Alabama’s offense. Since Hurts was mainly a running quarterback without a strong arm, the Bulldogs crowded the line of scrimmage and eliminated Alabama’s running game. Hurts completed only three passes for 21 yards, and Alabama punted four times on five first-half drives.

Rather than risk a repeat of last year’s final game, coach Saban unleashed his secret weapon, Tagovailoa, to start the second half. Suddenly, Georgia had to cover deep threats, giving Alabama room to run and throw, while trying to watch an equally slippery runner at quarterback.

On their second drive of the half, Tua marched the team 56 yards for a touchdown, accounting for the team’s entire offensive production. The drive culminated in a rifle shot over the middle from Tua to a slanting Henry Ruggs III in the back of the end zone. The Tide were now within six points.

Georgia struck back immediately, scoring on an 80-yard touchdown pass to Mecole Hardman three plays later. On Alabama’s next drive, Tua made an ill-advised pass attempt, and Georgia’s Deandre Baker snatched it for an interception.

Ahead by 13 and ready to score, Georgia looked ready to salt the game away. Instead, they gave the ball back on the next play, as a pass ricocheted off a lineman’s helmet into the arms of an Alabama lineman. Tua then led the team to a field goal, narrowing the lead back to 10 points.

Neither team gained an advantage on the next three drives, then Tua led the Tide to another field goal. Alabama forced Georgia to punt on its next series, which put the ball in Tua’s hands with about seven minutes remaining, down by a touchdown. Once again, Tagovailoa was the main offensive force, passing and running for most of Alabama’s gains before scrambling out of danger to tie the score with an eight-yard pass on fourth down.

When neither team could score again in regulation, the game went into overtime. Under college overtime rules, teams alternate possession from the opponent’s 25-yard line, and the first team to outscore the other after alternating possessions wins. Georgia took the ball first but mustered only a field goal.

If Alabama could score a touchdown on their possession, they could win, while a field goal would tie the game again. On Tua’s first play, however, it looked like they would get neither.

He dropped back to pass, scrambled, and suffered a 16-yard loss on a sack, putting them too far away to try a field goal. The end zone was impossibly distant with Georgia ready for the inevitable pass play.

Making such a costly mistake in the biggest game of his life might have rattled another quarterback. But not Tagovailoa. On the next play, he dropped back and stared at one receiver, drawing the safety away from DeVonta Smith on the other side of the field. Then Tua unleashed a cannon of a throw to Smith, hitting him perfectly in stride as he streaked past both the cornerback and the out-of-position safety. Smith raced to the end zone untouched for the game-winning touchdown.

Under extraordinary circumstances, Tagovailoa won a national championship with a perfect 41-yard touchdown pass — a play for the ages. Coach Saban has an enviable problem next season, choosing between Hurts, who led Alabama to back-to-back national title games, and the far more dynamic Tua.

Whatever Saban decides, it’s now even easier than ever to see that a Polynesian football player doesn’t have to be a ferocious lineman, linebacker, or safety. He can also be the quarterback with ice in his veins who steps off the sidelines to execute perfectly and win the big game.

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