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Where EAST meets the Northwest

TERRIFIC TUA. This fall, college football fans are watching a historic season from the University of Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa (pictured), the best Asian quarterback since Marcus Mariota led the 2014 Oregon Ducks to a 13-2 record and won the Heisman Trophy. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

PRODIGIOUS POLYNESIAN PASSER. Alabama and starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa have dominated this season. The team tied a college football record by crushing all 12 of its regular-season opponents by at least 20 points. The last team to do that was Yale, in 1888, back when few other schools even knew how to play the game. (AP Photo/ Butch Dill)

From The Asian Reporter, V28, #23 (December 3, 2018), pages 9 & 11.

Tua Tagovailoa’s season for the ages

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

It’s not often that an Asian quarterback emerges on the college football scene, but when one does, he’s special. Timmy Chang, who has Hawai‘ian and Chinese ancestry, played for the University of Hawai‘i and set the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) record for most career passing yards in 2004. Samoan Marcus Mariota led the 2014 Oregon Ducks to a 13-2 record and won the Heisman Trophy by one of the highest vote totals ever, but failed to win a national championship.

This fall, college football fans are watching a historic season from the University of Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, the best Asian quarterback since Mariota. Like Mariota, Tagovailoa is Samoan and a graduate of Saint Louis School in Hawai‘i (also Chang’s alma mater). But unlike Mariota or Chang, Tagovailoa has already won a national championship — though not as the starting quarterback. Ironically, Tua’s team’s overpowering success this season could hamper his Heisman hopes.

Tua rose to prominence in last season’s national championship game, when Alabama trailed the Georgia Bulldogs, 0-13, at halftime. Alabama’s starting quarterback, Jalen Hurts, had been the starter behind center for the previous two seasons, but he was scuffling against Georgia.

Needing a spark, Alabama head coach Nick Saban put freshman Tagovailoa in the game to start the second half, and Tua led the Crimson Tide to an incredible 26-23 comeback win, capped by a 41-yard touchdown strike in overtime.

Tua Tagovailoa became the first Samoan quarterback to win a national championship in the NCAA, but speculation began almost immediately: Who would start for Alabama this season?

Hurts had led the Crimson Tide to two successive national championship games, but he lost the first one and Tagovailoa won the second. As a running quarterback, Hurts fits Alabama’s more conservative style. Tagovailoa, on the other hand, is a lefty gunslinger who excels at throwing and running, opening up the possibility of turnovers and injury.

As a tribute to his own conservative nature, Saban didn’t tip his hand about Alabama’s starting quarterback until before this season’s second game. Alabama’s first game, a cupcake matchup against lowly Louisville, was nonetheless Tagovailoa’s first career start at the college level, and Saban wanted to see how his sensation from Hawai‘i would perform. Hurts played a few series and finished the game when Alabama was ahead, 41-7, but Saban saw what he wanted from Tagovailoa and named Tua as his starter after the game.

This quarterback usage became a trend this season — Tagovailoa started the game and Hurts took over in the fourth quarter, when Alabama had a comfortable lead. Alabama was so good, in fact, that Tagovailoa did not take a snap in the fourth quarter until the team’s ninth game, against fourth-ranked Louisiana State University (LSU) — and even then, Tua only completed one pass before giving way to Hurts.

To say that Alabama has been good is a massive understatement. The team tied a college football record by crushing all 12 of its regular-season opponents by at least 20 points. The last team to do that was Yale, in 1888, back when few other schools even knew how to play the game.

Alabama was often so far ahead, they just didn’t need Tua to work his magic at the end of the game. But when he was on the field, Tua shone.

Through the end of the regular season, he threw 36 touchdowns against just two interceptions for 3,189 yards, while rushing for 211 yards and another five touchdowns.

In the final game of the regular season, against rival Auburn, Tagovailoa played most of the game, setting a new school record by scoring six total touchdowns.

His overall numbers compare well to other contenders for the Heisman Trophy, but they’re not the best. Tua’s main competitor, Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray, has thrown for 3,674 yards and 37 touch- downs with seven interceptions during the regular season. On top of this, Murray notched another 11 scores on the ground and 853 rushing yards, for 4,527 total yards. Washington State’s Gardner Minshew also has better stats than Tua, with 4,580 total yards, including 36 passing touchdowns and nine interceptions, and three more touchdowns on the ground.

But neither Oklahoma (11-1) nor Washington State (10-2) was undefeated during the regular season, and that should factor into the minds of Heisman voters. And Tua has been stingy with those picks, protecting the ball well; he didn’t throw his first interception until that LSU game.

Team statistics also help tally Tua’s impact on Alabama. Under Tua, this year’s Alabama team scored 588 points through 12 games, including eight games in which they scored more than 50 points. With Hurts, last year’s squad, composed of mostly the same players, scored just 519 in all 14 games, including only three when they scored more than 50 points.

Tua’s performance this season can also be measured against other Alabama players. His 54 total touchdowns already rank fourth-best all-time for an Alabama program that has been around for 115 years. The three players ahead of him all had two or three years to amass their totals. Just think of what the sophomore could do with another season or two behind center.

And all these numbers can’t show Tua’s unquantifiable talent: his speed afoot, quick release, soft touch, and cool composure under pressure. Heisman voters should take this into consideration when ranking their choices. Hopefully they won’t discount his lower numbers due to Alabama’s runaway victories — wins that might not have happened with a different signal-caller.

If Tua can win the Heisman Trophy and a national championship, he would be the first Polynesian quarterback to win both, and the only one to win two national titles. He’d also be the first Alabama quarterback to win a Heisman.

If he somehow fails to accomplish either of these milestones this season, Tua Tagovailoa is just a sophomore with two more years to achieve them — and to add to his already impressive totals. The 2018 college football regular season may be over, but Asian-American sports fans still have plenty to look forward to, both this season and beyond.

At press time, Alabama beat Georgia in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) championship match, 35-28. The semifinal playoff games, scheduled for Saturday, December 29, will feature #1 Alabama vs. #4 Oklahoma and #2 Clemson vs. #3 Notre Dame. The College Football Playoff National Championship will take place Monday, January 7, 2019 in Santa Clara, California.

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