SANTA CLARA, Calif. — When it was over, he remained frozen in place for a long while. During the final moments of a stunning blowout, Tua Tagovailoa had been sitting on the bench at the back of the sidelines, his head covered by a black and gold towel — “College Football Playoff National Championship,” it read — and now he held the pose for a few more moments.
A confetti cannon fired once, and then again, paper strips in Clemson’s orange and purple hurled into the air, then fluttering down. Jerry Jeudy, Alabama’s sophomore receiver, patted his quarterback’s head once, and then again, before heading toward the locker room. Senior running back Damien Harris approached and put his hands on Tagovailoa’s shoulder, then knelt and leaned in close.
“Keep your head up,” Harris told the quarterback. “One game doesn’t define you.”
But it definitely tweaked the legend of Tua.
If Clemson’s 44-16 beatdown of Alabama was hard for most of college football to comprehend, it was even harder for the shell-shocked players who’ve been part of the dynasty — “It’s all just a blur,” said senior center Ross Pierschbacher — and it seemed even more so for Tagovailoa. The sophomore’s season had been spectacular: All of those touchdowns, transforming Alabama’s offense into something unprecedented. Nick Saban’s best quarterback turning his latest team into perhaps his greatest team. Or so went the storylines.
And then Monday night, it all got rewritten.
Clemson’s freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence shredded Alabama’s defense. But an anticipated quarterback duel sputtered early. The Tide was unable to keep up, in large part because Tagovailoa was, well, mortal. He threw two costly interceptions, including a pick six on the Tide’s first possession that sent a shocking bolt through the stadium.
“We kept believing, kept believing,” Alabama tight end Hale Hentges said, “but there came a point in time when even Tua and all his heroics couldn’t save us.”
There were plenty of reasons for Alabama’s meltdown and offensive struggles. But Tagovailoa might have tried to be too heroic. It’s not hard to understand why he’d have believed he could.
Consider how he burst onto the scene a year ago, a freshman entering the national championship game in relief of starter Jalen Hurts when Alabama trailed Georgia 13-0, then producing an uneven but occasionally spectacular performance that finished with that 41-yard touchdown pass to win in overtime. “Second-and-26” was immediately woven into a prominent place in Alabama’s football tapestry. Its author became an instant legend.
And it only got better this season, as Tagovailoa became the catalyst for an offensive surge that seemed to make Alabama unbeatable. He was named the winner of the Maxwell and Walter Camp awards, given to the nation’s best player. When he didn’t win the Heisman Trophy, instead finishing second behind Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, many Alabama fans and several of his teammates, too, were indignant — they believed an ankle injury suffered against Georgia in the SEC championship game robbed him of winning that award, too — even as Tagovailoa handled it all with grace.
“He played his heart out all year,” Harris said. “The things that he was able to help us accomplish as a team, as an offense, he’ll go down in history forever. This game doesn’t really define him.
“It doesn’t end the way we wanted it to, but he’s got the world. The world is his, and he just has to take it over.”
Of course, we thought Tagovailoa already had.
Early in the fourth quarter, trailing by four touchdowns, Tagovailoa was pulled for Hurts (the junior backup wasn’t effective, either). He spent the remainder of the game waiting quietly for the final gun. And a few moments after he finally hauled himself up from the bench and left the field, Tagovailoa succinctly summed up a horrific and stunning performance:
“We had a great season,” he said, “but five words: ‘Good is not good enough.’ We didn’t finish the way we wanted to finish.”
In the big picture, Tagovailoa’s trajectory remains headed upward. He is a superlative talent who is surrounded by a lot more superlative talent; it took the best game from the nation’s best defense to slow Alabama. It’s not hard to envision another run at records — and more important, another national championship.
But this was something we had not seen from Tagovailoa.
It began with Alabama’s first possession. The pass should not have been thrown. Clemson was prepared for the route — the Tigers later said cornerback A.J. Terrell knew it was coming — and the result was an interception and a 44-yard return for a touchdown.
“Totally a bad decision,” Tagovailoa said.
Three plays later, when he hit Jeudy in stride for a 62-yard touchdown to tie it, all seemed right — but it wasn’t. Clemson’s defense harassed Tagovailoa for much of the night. The final statistics — Tagovailoa was 22 of 34 for 295 yards, with two touchdowns — don’t tell the entire story. In the second quarter, another poor decision resulted in another interception, ending a promising drive and setting up another Clemson touchdown and a 28-16 lead.
“Everyone expects him to be perfect,” Pierschbacher said. “When he’s not, it’s just like he gets crucified. It’s not fair to him. We all had mistakes tonight. We could have executed a lot better.”
Long after the rest of his teammates had left the locker room, Tagovailoa finally emerged. Shadowed by two staff members in gray suits, he walked quietly through a corridor beneath the stadium, then turned left toward the team buses.
“Have a good night,” the attendant holding the door said.
Tagovailoa nodded. And the door closed behind him.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ George Schroeder on Twitter @GeorgeSchroeder.