Alabama calls it ‘Seattle.’ Tua Tagovailoa knew it at St. Louis School as ‘Divide.’ It was his favorite play call in high school.
Now it’s the play that has cemented his name in Alabama lore.
“It’s like four verticals,” Vinny Passas, Tagovailoa’s former quarterbacks coach, told SEC Country of the play call. “It’s just a matter of how you’re going to manipulate the safety. He did the right thing. He peeked at the over route to get that safety to hold the middle a little bit. He just went outside with it and, gosh, it was there. The ball came out in front of his body.
“As soon as the ball left his hand, I just knew it was going to be 6. It was a dime. It was right there. I felt so happy for him. He must have repped that play at least 10 times a day at practice, five days a week for three years at practice. I thought he could have done that blindfolded. It was all meant to be.”
Saban said the play was “Seattle” — four verticals in Alabama’s terminology. Here’s the relevant diagrams of “Seattle” from the Alabama offensive playbook/installation pic.twitter.com/2zTdHC6MJB
— Chris B. Brown (@smartfootball) January 9, 2018
Tagovailoa hadn’t seen meaningful action all season. When the freshman quarterback did see the field, Alabama had already wrapped up the game. He hadn’t experienced anything like what he did with 14:50 left on the clock in the third quarter on Monday night, when he replaced Jalen Hurts at quarterback.
Passas was just hoping that Tagovailoa would be able to get adjusted to the speed of the game. The first series was always going to be a challenge for him. The Tide went three-and-out and Tagovailoa was brought down on a sack by Butkus Award winner Roquan Smith for a loss of 4 yards.
Watching the game from over 4,000 miles away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Passas didn’t panic, and he knew Tagovailoa was poised, too.
“I had confidence that he would do it,” Passas said. “By him throwing the ball the way he does, I thought that would help Alabama. He feels more comfortable throwing than running. Georgia was packing the box to try to take the running game away all game. I thought that fit in perfectly with Tua’s situation.
“I told my family, ‘Do not be surprised if Tua comes off the bench and saves the game.’ They all gave me that, ‘Yeah, right. You can’t take out Jalen Hurts. This guy has lost two games. He doesn’t turn the ball over.’ ”
What a game. What a finish.
Alabama does what Alabama does. pic.twitter.com/OITczvp4n1
— ESPN (@espn) January 9, 2018
It was clear that Alabama needed to make a quarterback change in the second half. Hurts was 3-of-8 passing in the first half for just 21 yards. The Tide were down 13-0 at halftime, so when the quarterback change was made, it was all on the freshman’s shoulders.
Tagovailoa had experience in a do-or-die game before. In his last high school game at Saint Louis, Tagovailoa had to rally the Crusaders back in the fourth quarter of the state championship game against Kahuku, which had won 24 straight games over Hawaiian schools until Tagovailoa’s Crusaders upended them.
That game also featured a critical fourth-down conversion where Tagovailoa audibled at the line of scrimmage and scampered for 28 yards to set up a touchdown a few plays later. Monday night, Tagovailoa threw a touchdown pass to Calvin Ridley on fourth-and-4 with 3:49 on the clock to tie the game at 20-20.
Passas said that he knew Tagovailoa had the confidence to get the job done.
“I knew nothing was going to be too big for him,” he said. “All he needed was the opportunity. I am just so happy that the nation could see what we already knew what Tua was all about.”
Football fans in Hawaii knew what was Tagovailoa was about. He is the state’s all-time leader in passing yards and is on the pantheon of football players in the state. Passas said Tagovailoa’s picture was plastered on the front page of the Honolulu newspaper and inside on the sports page. Media gathered at Saint Louis to see what the buzz was like on campus. Passas himself said he had received texts and emails from people stating how proud they were of what Tagovailoa accomplished on the biggest stage in college football.
Tagovailoa’s former coach knew that this season was going to be different for the former 5-star prospect. He wasn’t used to sitting on the bench.
Passas vividly recalled one play where a Saint Louis receiver slipped and fell, leading to an interception from Tagovailoa that ricocheted off his teammate’s helmet as he was falling down. It was just one of three turnovers for Tagovailoa during his sophomore season — a big reason why he took hold of the Crusaders’ starting quarterback job over a returning senior in Ryder Kuhns, who was on the All-State team the previous season.
Tagovailoa knew he was going to have to battle with Hurts — the reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year — when he signed with Alabama. It didn’t matter to Tagovailoa. He hadn’t been challenged in his final two years at high school. Having the opportunity to battle with one of the top players in all of college football fueled Tagovailoa all season and it’s why he likely won’t relinquish the quarterback job now.
“I had so many people ask me when he signed why Alabama?” Passas said. “Why not go to a place like Oregon or USC? Because Tua always wants a challenge. If he’s challenged, his level of play goes past 10. He went to the Elite 11 and that pushed him up. Then he goes to Alabama, and competing for a spot there, I know it elevated his play and the way he prepares himself.
“I had a feeling that Tua may get that chance this year. He was always one play away. It was a real test for Tua this year to be patient and just trust that the good Lord would put him in the right situation at the right time. This is the first time that he has sat on the bench in a while and the first time he’s watched the game from the sidelines. It was going to be something new for him. That was my biggest concern with Tua.”
Passas had a feeling Tagovailoa would get an opportunity by watching Hurts’ passing attack this season. Hurts struggled to pass the ball all season against teams with a solid defense. He theorized why that was.
“He wasn’t the Jalen from last year,” Passas said. “It almost kind of seemed like he was more concerned with not turning the ball over and waiting for the guy to get wide open before he threw the ball.”
There was a clear change in the game plan when Tagovailoa took over in the second half. Alabama’s offense opened up. The Tide started to take shots down the field. Tagovailoa found holes in the Bulldogs’ defense.
Tagovailoa went from a name that few knew how to pronounce to a name that will now never be forgotten in college football history.
“God, talk about a life-changing moment for 15 minutes in the third quarter and 15 minutes in the fourth quarter and then 5 minutes in overtime,” Passas said. “I mean, gosh, his life has really changed in that short period of time.
“I am just so proud of him. He’s like a brother to me. I was so proud of the way he handled his interviews and how he was so appreciative of the guys next to him. That’s what we preach at Saint Louis.”
Passas hasn’t talked to Tagovailoa since the win. He joked that he was probably text No. 583 in Tagovailoa’s phone. He did speak with Tua’s father, Galu, Tuesday morning. Galu thanked Passas for all that he did for his son. Passas told him that the highlight of the night wasn’t the touchdown pass to freshman wide receiver DeVonta Smith. It was seeing Tagovailoa run up to his family to share the moment with them.
The Tagovailoas relocated from Ewa Beach, Hawaii to Alabaster, Ala., after Tua enrolled in Alabama last January. The family has spent lots of time together over the past few months, whether it be his mother, Diane, coming over to Tagovailoa’s dorm where they usually sing together, or whether it be Tua hanging out with his younger brother Taulia, a Class of 2019 4-star quarterback, in the football facilities. After Monday night, Passas believes the Tagovailoas made the right call in uprooting their lives for the son who will never be forgotten.
“It was a tough family decision to take that leap of faith from Honolulu, Hawaii to Alabama,” Passas said. “It was a big leap for them. They had a lot of faith in the good Lord that they made the right decision and I think last night validated the decision they made to take that leap.”