ATLANTA – Mercedes-Benz Stadium is the stage Jalen Hurts once exited to make way for another quarterback. But his story wasn’t over.
In the next act, he’d make his return.
Alabama needed Tua Tagovailoa to beat Georgia for the national championship in January. On Saturday, it needed Jalen Hurts to beat the Bulldogs again.
“Same thing as last year,” Georgia cornerback Deandre Baker said. “A new quarterback came in and won the game.”
Hurts took over at quarterback when Tagovailoa suffered a foot injury in the fourth quarter against Georgia in the SEC championship. Alabama had fallen behind early and never led, trailing 28-21 when the junior quarterback got the call. He led two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter to complete the comeback, winning 35-28.
The percussive big-play offense that was Alabama’s trademark all season struggled, falling behind by 14 points twice. Alabama’s chances appeared to dim in the fourth quarter when an offensive lineman accidentally stepped on Tagovailoa’s foot. Then a familiar star showed them the way.
“We’re so blessed to have him on our team,” tight end Irv Smith Jr. said.
Hurts threw a 13-yard completion to Smith on third-and-12 on his second play, the first third-down conversion of the game for the offense. It was a tight throw in the middle of the field with a Georgia defender challenging Smith. That got Alabama moving. The offense was 0-for-5 on third down before Hurts came in the game; after that point it was 6-for-6.
Hurts found freshman Jaylen Waddle on the sideline for 23 yards on third-and-five on the next series. Later in the drive, facing third-and-goal from the 10, he took off to extend the play and hit Jerry Jeudy in the end zone for a touchdown.
“Jalen still comes in and works every single day, tries to improve as a player, tries to be the best version of himself,” senior running back Damien Harris said. “All that hard work paid off tonight.”
Hurts has had a role in Alabama’s season, often helping to finish off blowout wins during the team’s march to a perfect regular season. But Tagovailoa became entrenched as the starter and a Heisman Trophy hopeful. Hurts had thrown just five total passes in Alabama’s final five games.
“I’ve probably never been more proud of a player than Jalen,” coach Nick Saban said. ” … You’ve got to have a tremendous amount of character and class to put team first, knowing your situation is not what it used to be. For a guy that’s a competitor, that takes a lot. It’s not easy to do.”
He wasn’t done yet. Alabama regained possession after Georgia failed to convert on a fake punt, giving Hurts another chance to seal a championship. Alabama went 52 yards in five plays to reach the end zone. Hurts gave Alabama the lead when he scrambled on first down from the 15-yard line, fighting his way across the plane.
“I had an option, had to find my movement key and see what would trigger the decision I’d make,” Hurts said. “My guy went out, so I took it in and had really good open lanes and found a way to get in the end zone.”
Hurts finished the game 7 of 9 for 82 yards and a touchdown. He added 28 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Tagovailoa celebrated with him after the game. Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Hurts “played his guts out.”
His time on the stage hadn’t ended yet. Smith found Hurts after he sealed the win and delivered the perfect line, right on cue.
“I just said ‘That’s God, baby. It’s destiny,'” he told Hurts. “He worked so hard for this moment, and we all have.”
Reach Ben Jones at email@example.com or 205-722-0196. Marc Weiszer contributed to this story.