Containing Tua: Can the Dawgs do it?
No matter how many questions are posed to Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, there’s really only one that matters for the Bulldogs in Saturday’s SEC Championship against Alabama: How will the Bulldogs fare in their attempt to contain Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa?
Whatever chance Georgia may have of taking down the nation’s top-ranked team and earning a trip to the College Football Playoff, it will likely rest on that issue.
“He's got an elite arm talent. He's really fast. He's got really good wide receivers around him, powerful backs, a talented tight end, and a great offensive line. And he knows where to go with the ball,” Smart said. “He's got great vision downfield. He's got the ability to look off safeties. He can throw the touch pass and he can throw bullets. He's also really good at the RPO game. On top of all that, he can run.”
One quick look at his numbers and it’s easy to see why the sophomore is arguably the top candidate to win the Heisman Trophy.
Tagovailoa is the highest-rated passer in the nation, with a passer efficiency rating of 212.5, and 3,189 yards passing on 189-of-269 attempts. He has thrown a school-record 36 touchdowns with just two interceptions. He’s also rushed 45 times for 211 yards and five scores.
That’s not all.
Fifty-five of Alabama’s 99 offensive drives directed by Tagovailoa this season have lasted five plays or less (55.6 percent). Thirty one of those 55 drives have resulted in touchdowns (56.4 percent) and two have ended in field goals for 33 total scoring drives of five or fewer plays (60 percent). Nineteen of those quick-strike drives have been 50 yards or longer.
Georgia senior Jonathan Ledbetter says that he and the defense are well aware of these issues. They realize the Bulldogs will have to go about defending the Crimson Tide a bit differently than they did in last year’s National Championship.
“I think, first and foremost, it definitely does change. Last year they were a little more run-oriented, they ran the ball a lot, and we were able to kind of stop the run in that game,” Ledbetter said. “We've definitely got to make sure we affect the quarterback, whether that's getting sacks, getting batted balls, or just great pocket push—and just making them throw uncomfortably. I think the name of the game is just making him uncomfortable for as long as you can.”
However, that may be easier said than done. Alabama ranks first in the SEC with just 11 sacks allowed, while the Bulldogs are tied for next-to-last in the conference with 20.
“You just gotta have your rush, your coverages working together. You've got to have all four guys on the front line, making sure those A areas of escape are closed and he can't escape in the B areas or the C areas,” Ledbetter said. “We've just got to have everybody doing their job, knowing where the guy next to him is, and knowing where those gaps are, so that somebody is there to fill in.”
Tagovailoa, as you might expect, gives a lot of credit to his coaches and teammates around him.
“I think a lot of what I've been doing is a testament to our coaches. Coach (Dan) Enos has been doing a really good job with us in the quarterback room, and Coach (Michael) Locksley has been really attentive to how he calls his plays with what I'm good at doing,” Tagovailoa said. “I think a lot of that, first off, is taking what the defense gives us now. I think it's also distributing the ball to more than one person.”
Tagovailoa isn’t kidding there.
Seven different players have caught at least 17 passes for Alabama, led by Jerry Jeudy with 56 catches for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns.
But he’s not the only explosive weapon at Tagovailoa’s disposal. Henry Ruggs Jr. (39-675, 10 TD), Jaylen Waddle (37-690-6), Irv Smith Jr., (35-613-7) and DeVonta Smith (27-498-5) are each averaging at least 17.3 yards per catch.
“Your secondary has to be on point. You can never relax,” Smart said. “If he were ever to get out of the pocket, you have to make sure you continue to cover your guys, so they don't just have easy downfield throws to wide-open receivers. Everyone has to be on their toes.”
For those wondering, Tagovailoa’s knee is apparently feeling much better.
Last week against Auburn, Tagovailoa was able to ditch the brace on his knee for the first time in several weeks and he doesn’t plan on wearing it Saturday against the Bulldogs.
“I feel like it was kind of a hindrance. The doctors wanted me to use it just to protect my PCL,” Tagovailoa said. “But I asked them if it would be possible to take it off, just because my mobility with it on isn't the same. We did take it off, and it does feel a lot better.”
Smart just hopes his defense will be ready.
“He’s a lot to take in. I think you see that by their scores and what they've been able to do. The challenges are to be able to cover people, to affect the quarterback, to tackle people in open space, and to take advantage of mistakes,” Smart said. “He's certainly very talented—and I don't look at him as just dual threat. I look at him as a talented pocket passer, because that's where he does a lot of his damage.”