Opinion: Hurts Shows Character in SEC Title Game

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Chattanooga Times Free Press (Tennessee)


ATLANTA -- What was he thinking?

That's the first storyline that will come to mind regarding this stunning, shocking, stupefying 35-28 Southeastern Conference title game victory by Alabama's reigning national championship football team over Georgia on Saturday evening.

As in: What was Bulldogs boss Kirby Smart thinking with 3:04 to go in a tie game when he decided to fake a punt from midfield that went next to nowhere, giving Bama a short field from which to begin its winning drive?

"We had been carrying (that play), actually carried it last year," Smart said afterward. "Thought it was there, and it was there today. We took too long to snap the ball. We had a guy wide open. We took so long to snap it, they recognized it and got the guy covered late."

To semi-repeat the words of Robert Burns: The best-laid schemes of mice and men sometimes go astray.

And so it was that almost exactly as it unraveled last January for Georgia against the Tide inside this same Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the national championship game, the Bulldogs again blew a double-digit lead, again done in by the Crimson Tide's backup quarterback.

Only this backup quarterback, junior Jalen Hurts, was Bama's starter in that CFP title game. The starter who was benched at halftime in favor of the then true freshman phenom Tua Tagovailoa, who went into Saturday as the overwhelming Heisman Trophy favorite. The starter who hasn't been a starter a single time since January.

But then Tua, as most tongue-tied mortals call him due to verbal shortcomings, threw an interception on the Tide's first drive this time around. His receivers then dropped far more than a normal amount of the passes reaching their normally sticky fingers. And the Georgia defense proved far more bite than bark, right down to chasing Tua all over the field until he eventually sprained his ankle in the opening half, going to the sideline for good after injuring his foot with roughly 11 minutes to play.

It is there, Georgia ahead by 28-21 in this wild and woolly repeat of last year's national title game, that the best storyline of this game began.

Because redemption is a much more positive, uplifting story than revenge. And what unfolded atop the plastic grass of Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Saturday's final 11 minutes was about as positive and uplifting as college sports gets these days.

Remember that Hurts was 26-2 as a starter for Bama before losing his starting job to Tua. Though Bama coach Nick Saban tried to make it sound otherwise through the summer, as if no decision was final, Tua was making his 13th start in 13 games when the Tide kicked off to the Bulldogs to begin this one.

Hurts, the son of a high school coach, could have pouted and sulked. He's still expected to transfer during the winter, probably to Oregon. But from September through Saturday's first half, he never did anything but be prepared for a second chance.

Or as he told the SEC Network crew Saturday night: "I can't control what's said about me. I have to be ready."

With 11 minutes to go, Bama down a touchdown, Mercedes-Benz sounding 60-40 in favor of Georgia, Hurts was at least equally as ready as Tua had been 11 months earlier inside this same sports palace.

In 13 plays, four of them third downs, he drove the Tide 69 yards for the tying touchdown, Hurts rolling right and delivering a 10-yard laser pass to Jerry Jeudy along the right sideline of the end zone with 5:19 to go.

Then, after Smart's ill-advised fake punt, Hurts deftly orchestrated a five-play 52-yard drive in 2:07, his fleet feet covering the final 15 yards after his 16-yard pass to Jaylen Waddle set up that go-ahead run.

For Peach State sports fans, it has to hurt. It means reliving the NFL Falcons' Super Bowl collapse two years ago against New England. It means reliving January's overtime loss to Bama all over again. It also means that despite holding second-half leads of 13 points and 14 points in separate games, Smart again failed to become the first former Saban assistant to beat him.

Yet it also means that Hurts can put last year's title game and this season's struggles behind him.

"I've probably never been more proud of a player than Jalen," Saban said afterward. "It's unprecedented (what Hurts has gone through losing his starting job). How do you handle that? You've got to have a tremendous amount of character and class to put the team first. That's not easy to do."

Here's character and class: Asked what he wanted to say about this season and last spring, Hurts said, "It kind of feels like I'm breaking my silence. I haven't said anything all year, but this team has worked really hard. Sometimes we're going to get hit in the mouth, but we know that we're going to be fine."

And that was all he said, preferring to let his play speak for itself.

The game long done, his SEC Network interview finished, Hurts spied a young boy from Huntsville in the stands as he left the field. He tossed his towel, his sweatbands and a crimson bracelet to Wyatt Bloom, who later said, a big grin on his face, "I'm putting them in a shadow box in my bedroom. Roll, Tide."

After that came a couple of photo poses with other Bama fans, then a slow jog to the locker room.

But as he exited the field, someone asked which had meant more to him -- the perfectly thrown touchdown pass or the perfectly executed touchdown run?

Said Hurts: "The win."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at [email protected]

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December 2, 2018


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