It would be naive to think that this one wasn’t personal. Players and coaches may have said the right things (while a few still hinted at the additional motivation), claiming it wasn’t Tua vs. Kyler and instead just another step on the championship road. Yet the tenor in the building, on the field and on the sidelines from the very first snap seemed to indicate otherwise.
The Alabama Crimson Tide came out and blitzed the Oklahoma Sooners in Saturday’s College Football Playoff semifinal encounter, beginning with a first quarter that could not have been more one-sided. It was all orchestrated by Tua Tagovailoa, who has been the story of the past month after undergoing ankle surgery on Dec. 2 to hopefully stabilize that ongoing injury.
There was no rust and no hesitancy from Tagovailoa. Conversely, Kyler Murray was harassed and shut down by the Alabama defense, appearing a bit rattled under the microscope.
When Murray overtook Tagovailoa — somewhat controversially — and won the Heisman Trophy three weeks ago, this matchup took on a bit of a new flavor. It was no longer just two teams hoping to play their way to a national championship opportunity, it would be either an affirmation that voters got it right or a referendum on the late-season change of heart.
The first 15 minutes was an unmistakeable TKO thrown by Tua and the Tide defense. Not only was everything landing for Alabama, but it was landing with ease. Tagovailoa was as sharp as he’s ever been — which is really, really sharp. He completed his first eight passes for 148 yards, leading Alabama to three straight scoring drives and a 21-0 lead in the blink of an eye.
Conversely, Murray and the Sooners, who entered with the top offense in the nation, had managed exactly zero yards of total offense to that point. Not only did the Heisman winner seem to be flustered by his on-field foe, but the crowd even started in with an “overrated” chant that began to reverberate throughout the Orange Bowl.
It was the exact sentiment that could be read on all the Alabama players’ faces as they began to smell blood. There was little resistance and they knew it. They were smiling after every catch, after every big hit. The confidence was at maximum levels. Whatever the offense wanted to do was there and absolutely everything the defense did was completely corralling Oklahaoma. Murray began second-guessing his own rush attempts and throwing passes into the ground. It was the first time that the unflappable quarterback has appeared, well, flappable.
After going down 28-0, Oklahoma responded with plenty of grit, getting back to within 11 points on three occasions in the second half. But those early statements made were already the resounding story of the night.
Tagovailoa was the best quarterback in the country for the entirety of the season. Losing the Heisman to Murray was not a huge injustice because of just how good Murray was in every facet and in closing out the year.
But nobody watching those first two quarters of action would ever suspect that the quarterback awarded the distinction of best player in the country was under center for Oklahoma. Say what you want about it being “just another game,” but that’s exactly what the entire Alabama sideline set out to do.
David Simon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.