KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Smoke rolled out of the Alabama locker room at Neyland Stadium. The spark that lit the fire strode out.
“Things are so much more fun when you don’t only have one person to go to, when you have guys at running back that can make plays for you as well,” Tua Tagovailoa said after Alabama’s 58-21 victory over Tennessee. “This is just fun out here.”
The sophomore quarterback tied his career high with four touchdown passes to four different players. He completed 19 of his 29 passes for 306 yards.
In many ways it was just another game for Tagovailoa, who has thrown for 300 yards three times this season and thrown four touchdowns in half of Alabama’s eight games. He did it without playing the fourth quarter, which he hasn’t been called upon to do yet this season.
“This offense that we’re displaying right now, it’s something special,” senior center Ross Pierschbacher said. “I think the coaching staff recognizes that as well. Since I’ve been here, Tua is a special player and I think everyone in the country knows that. It’s a matter of keeping him healthy and keep clicking the way we are, all the playmakers getting them the ball like the way we have been.”
Pierschbacher is the only Alabama starter who was also a starter for Derrick Henry’s 2015 Heisman run. Tagovailoa will enter November with the same attention Henry received late in that season.
He’s far from the only one playing at a high level. Sophomore receiver Jerry Jeudy caught his 10th touchdown pass of the season, tied for third-most in a season in school history. Henry Ruggs III caught his seventh touchdown pass and tight end Irv Smith Jr. caught his fifth. Freshman Jaylen Waddle led Alabama with 117 receiving yards and a touchdown on four catches.
“We have talent everywhere,” Ruggs said. “Every position, we have special players that can do special things at any time. With Tua being our leader, the guy we’re following, the competitor he is, he just makes us better.”
Tagovailoa played only one drive in the third quarter, finishing with a 41-yard touchdown to Ruggs. He was hit on the play and Alabama’s athletic trainers rushed to check on him after he sprained a knee earlier this season. But he was already jogging off when the medical staff arrived.
UA coach Nick Saban said Tagovailoa could have returned to action but the coaching staff planned to turn the game over to Jalen Hurts anyway. Tagovailoa had a clean pocket for most of the day and only scrambled once for 6 yards. His knee only bothers him on specific movements, he said.
“It’s one of those things you have to play through,” he said.
It didn’t stop the Alabama offense from finishing with 545 total yards and 58 points, the most for any team in the history of the series against Tennessee.
The fire started from Tagovailoa’s hands. It spread from there and hasn’t been contained yet.
“We have four really, really good receivers,” Saban said. “Those guys make tough catches, they make contested catches, they took some big hits today. We made some great catches on long balls. The quarterback is a naturally instinctive guy that really understands what he’s supposed to do. I think we have two really good offensive tackles, which, the protection today was really good. … That’s the kind of team that we have.”
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196.