Tua Tagovailoa off to scorching start for Tide

Tua Tagovailoa off to scorching start for Tide

September 14th, 2018 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Alabama sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has thrown six touchdown passes with no interceptions through the first two games of the season for the top-ranked Crimson Tide.

Alabama sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has thrown six...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

As if the rest of the college football world wanted Alabama to become even stronger.

The top-ranked Crimson Tide are off to a sizzling start, routing Louisville 51-14 and Arkansas State 57-7 in their first two games heading into Saturday night's Southeastern Conference opener at Ole Miss. Alabama had not scored 50 or more points in its first two games since 1925, but this year's offense is thriving with sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

Tagovailoa was tabbed for the starting role over junior Jalen Hurts two days before the opener and has yet to blink. The 6-foot-1, 218-pounder leads the nation in efficiency among quarterbacks who have played at least two games, having completed 25 of 35 passes for 455 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions for a robust rating of 237.2.

Even Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban struggled somewhat this week when asked how Tagovailoa could improve.

"He's a perfectionist," Saban said. "He's a hard worker. He wants to do things the right way and takes coaching well. Where he continues to make progress is handling pressure and understanding the protection.

"He's gotten a lot better at that, which is really critical for any quarterback."

Tagovailoa has guided 13 possessions so far this season, with nine resulting in touchdowns and one culminating in a field goal. Alabama was 11-of-16 on third-down conversions during those drives, with those possessions accounting for 671 yards on 76 snaps for an average of 8.8 yards per play.

Throw in the second half of January's national championship game against Georgia, when Tagovailoa replaced Hurts at halftime and rallied Alabama from a 13-0 deficit to a 26-23 overtime victory, and Tagovailoa has directed 22 drives that have yielded 12 touchdowns, three field goals and an average of 7.8 yards per play.

"It starts with all the tools he has around him," Ole Miss coach Matt Luke said. "He's got a good offensive line and good receivers and good backs and obviously good coaches, and then you've got him making good decisions. That's what is very impressive to me, his decision-making. When it does break down, he is able to extend the play with his feet while keeping his eyes down the field and keeping his composure.

"For a young quarterback, I think that's pretty special."

Of all the video-game numbers Tagovailoa has produced through two games, none is more eye-popping that his totals on third-down passing situations, where he is 10-for-10 for 207 yards and four touchdowns for an efficiency rating of 405.88.

Luke could only laugh Wednesday afternoon on the SEC teleconference when told of Tagovailoa's third-down rating, and Saban certainly didn't downgrade the importance of that stat.

"First of all, he's very instinctive when it comes to the passing game and moving in the pocket and keeping his eyes down the field," Saban said, "but those numbers don't just come because of the quarterback. Obviously it's a good plan by the offense, and it's execution by the protection folks and the route-runners.

"He's done a good job of hanging in there and throwing the ball to the right place. Third down is a critical part of the game, and we put a lot of emphasis on it, and I think it's going to be important that we have success on that down if we're going to continue to have success in the future."

Luke's Rebels were massacred 66-3 by Alabama last season in Tuscaloosa, where Hurts threw for 197 yards, rushed for 101 and totaled three touchdowns. Luke sees an improved Crimson Tide team this season from the standpoint of stretching the field with a deep passing game that includes faster receivers.

Ole Miss is coming off a 76-41 win over Southern Illinois in which the Salukis racked up 629 yards and converted seven third-down opportunities and three fourth-down chances.

"Third downs will be key on both sides, because we will need to keep it away from them some," Luke said. "That will be huge, and we've talked about it all week."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.