If Tua Tagovailoa still had any hard feelings from the end of the Heisman Trophy race earlier this month, he didn’t show it in Alabama’s 45-34 Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma on Saturday.
Not as he opened the game with a 50-yard strike to receiver DeVonta Smith. Not as he completed 24 of 27 passes for 318 yards and four touchdowns. Not as he took a final knee in the waning seconds with another, easily attainable touchdown just 6 yards away. And certainly not as he lay among the crimson-and-white-colored confetti in the aftermath of his team’s victory.
No, the phenomenal sophomore from Hawaii looked as calm, poised and fun-loving as he has all season against the Sooners’ hapless defense. He completed passes to nine different receivers, and each of his four touchdown passes went to a different teammate. He hit his guys in stride, ran when he needed to and was largely unfazed against whatever pressure Oklahoma managed.
“We didn’t execute as much as we wanted to on offense, but we made some things happened when we needed to,” Tagovailoa said on the ESPN telecast after the game. “It was just a great team win.”
He looked like the player who so many thought would win the Heisman — before the final push of Sooners quarterback Kyler Murray, anyway.
The uber-athletic Murray showed his mettle against the Tide, easily Oklahoma’s toughest opponent this season. He wasn’t as efficient through the air as Tagovailoa (19-of-37 passing, 308 yards, two touchdowns) but he put his incredible speed on display in rushing 17 times for 109 yards and another score.
Anyone who thought Murray’s fantastic season was a product of beleaguered Big 12 defenses was quickly shown the error of their ways. True, Alabama harried him like no other team this season en route to taking an early 28-0 lead, but were it not for Murray, this game could easily have been a lot worse than the final margin. He made play after play to keep his team in the game, frustrating the Tide like no other individual has — so far — this season.
Much was made about this quarterback duel heading into this Orange Bowl matchup, and neither player disappointed.
“He did a great job tonight,” Tagovailoa said of Murray. “I think he did a tremendous job for his team. He did all he can. I just told him, ‘Congratulations on a great season.’ They’re a tough team.”
Murray’s coach, Lincoln Riley, shared that sentiment.
“He’s a leader, a fighter, a great player,” Riley said. “He’s improved throughout the year. I’ve loved coaching him every step.”
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The question next facing Murray is a little tougher than making reads and exploiting opposing defenses on the gridiron. The No. 9 overall pick in the 2018 MLB Draft must now decide whether he wishes to play baseball or football professionally — a decision that is reportedly becoming harder and harder.
If this is indeed Murray’s final go-round in a football uniform, then let this be said of the redshirt junior, whose winding path to greatness at Oklahoma so closely resembles predecessor Baker Mayfield’s: He proved in this losing effort that he was deserving of college football’s most illustrious award. That his football career could end on the field of Hard Rock Stadium is undoubtedly bittersweet, but nothing can take this incredible season away from him as he moves on to future endeavors.
Tagovailoa’s future is more concrete, at least in the short term. He and No. 1 Alabama will take on No. 2 Clemson for the fourth time in as many years in the national championship game on Jan. 7. He has another fantastic quarterback duel waiting for him against freshman Trevor Lawrence — a battle he may have sowed with his championship game heroics last season.
He can test himself against a Clemson defense that increasingly looks like Alabama’s biggest challenge of the year — again. He can help lead Alabama to the first 15-0 record in the modern era, and the first since Penn in 1897. He can help Nick Saban to a record seventh national championship.
The best part of Tagovailoa’s legacy? We still have at least one more year to enjoy it. As great as he has been all season — and was again against Oklahoma — that is something for which we can be truly appreciative.