By Marc Weiszer
Georgia’s defensive players plan to bring bad intentions in pursuit of Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who has shown time and again this season the damage he can do with time in the pocket or even when there’s bodies flying around him.
“I feel like if we just collapse the pocket and get in his face, I feel like that should rattle him a little bit,” said defensive lineman Michael Barnett, who ended up dislodging the helmet off Georgia Tech quarterback TaQuon Marshall last Saturday, forcing him out of the game for a play. “Our DBs can’t cover the whole play. We just need to put pressure on him and get him early. They’re doing their job and we have to do our job as well.”
Problem is only one opponent has registered more than one sack this season against Tagovailoa and the top-ranked Crimson Tide, who play No. 4 Georgia Saturday in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.
“There’s very few defenses that have made him uncomfortable,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said.
Mississippi State sacked Tagovailoa four times and held Alabama to a season low point total in a 24-0 Crimson Tide win on Nov. 10 but those Bulldogs are 11th in the nation with 36 sacks.
Georgia is 101st with 20, led by outside linebacker D’Andre Walker’s 6½, but have 10 over the last four games.
The Bulldogs, tied for second nationally for fewest pass plays allowed of 20 or more yards with 19, have placed a premium on limiting big plays on the back end more than selling out to get after the quarterback.
Tagovailoa, of course, is not just any quarterback. The sophomore has completed 70.3 percent of his passes, leads the nation in passing efficiency, has thrown for a school-record 36 touchdowns to just two interceptions and is a threat with his feet, rushing for 211 yards on 45 carries with five touchdowns.
“Our best pass rushers on the edge honestly did a really good job, they just get the ball out so quickly at times that it was hard to get there,” said Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson, whose Sun Belt team finished 8-4 and is headed to the Arizona Bowl but lost to Alabama 57-7 on Sept. 8. “We got to him a couple of times, but man, even when you get to him he’s so elusive he can just extend the play so easily.”
Mississippi State three times used a five-man rush to sack Tagovailoa, who came limping off the field after one of those plays. LSU came with five on one play in which it batted a pass down in the backfield, but also paid for bringing that many on a third-and-8 when Tagovailoa scrambled 44 yards for a touchdown.
“I think it’s pick your poison,” Anderson said. “Do you bring a bunch of dang bodies and hope you don’t have to cover very long against some of the best wideouts in the frickin’ country? Those dudes are freaks. Or do you go with a four-man rush hoping you can either move the front or twist the front and a guy can come free but then good luck trying to get the dude on the ground. It’s a huge challenge.”
Said defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter: “We have faith in whatever our coaches call. Whether that’s three guys down, four guys rushing or if we surprise them and do something exotic.”
Tagovailoa wore a brace on a sprained right knee in wins over LSU and Mississippi State—the only games this season that he’s thrown an interception—but he shed it the past two games when he’s completed 43 of 54 passes for 664 yards with eight touchdowns and no interception. He said he won’t wear it Saturday.
“I feel like it was kind of a hindrance,” he said. “But the doctors wanted me to use it just to protect my PCL. But I told them if it would be possible that we could take it off just because my mobility with it on isn’t the same. We got to taken it off and it does feel a lot better.”
Georgia coach Kirby Smart said making Tagovailoa uncomfortable with the pass rush has risk and rewards.
“It would be great to do that, it would be awesome to do that,” he said. “I think if you can disrupt the pocket and get him out — to do that you gotta take a lot of chances, and there’s some good players back there behind those chances you’re taking. And they also have the ability to expose you when you’re not balanced up on the run. … Getting pressure, affecting the quarterback, absolutely that’s critical. But not giving up big plays is, too.”
Tagovailoa is quick on his reads and in making decisions, Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
“I think his knowledge and experience have grown, and there are certainly things he can continue to grow on that would help him eliminate some of the negative plays, although there haven’t been a ton of them,” Saban said. “We’ve played better defensive teams, Mississippi State, Auburn and certainly Georgia is one of the best teams that we’ll have played against. So making those kinds of choices and decisions quickly is going to be pretty important in this game as well.”