Tua Tagovailoa is a cautionary tale.
By now, you know what happened. Last Saturday, after returning from an ankle injury the week before, Alabama’s junior quarterback and reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year started for the Crimson Tide on the road against 4-5 Mississippi State. Granted, the 9-1 Tide likely could have coasted even without their standout signal caller. But he played anyway.
The plan, most assumed, was to play him — then protect him.
“We’re going to see Tua as long as this game is tight, but I really think Nick Saban wants to bring in (backup quarterback) Mac Jones if they can get a significant lead,” ESPN analyst Todd McShay said on Alabama’s opening drive.
And, unsurprisingly, it didn’t take the Tide long to get a significant lead. They scored touchdowns on their first five possessions of the first half, stampeding out to a 35-7 advantage. Tua completed 14 of 18 passes, throwing for 256 yards and two touchdowns.
It looked like Saban was ready to pull him, but Tua pleaded for one more series. So he got one more series.
His last series of the season.
“We might have jumped the gun a little bit on putting Tua’s day to bed. Tua Tagovailoa’s still in there,” ESPN play-by-play announcer Steve Levy said forebodingly with 3:37 left in the second quarter.
Barely 30 seconds later, Tua rolled to his left and flung a pass out of bounds as he was pummeled by a pair of Bulldog defenders. He dislocated his right hip in the process, simultaneously ending his junior season and plunging his draft stock into unexpected jeopardy.
But, let’s not forget, this is a Washington football newsletter. So, in the same situation, would Chris Petersen have acted differently?
“Each game is different, but when you’re in the first half or the third quarter, I don’t think most coaches think about (taking out the starting quarterback) at all,” UW’s sixth-year head coach said Monday. “I think they’re thinking about, ‘I know how teams can make a run on us if we turn the ball over or we don’t do anything (offensively).’
“That’s all I ever think about. I’m never thinking, ‘OK, we’re good now,’ until that clock strikes zero, or sometimes late in the fourth quarter. So it is what it is. You’re going out there, and if a guy’s playing, he’s playing.”
This is all the more relevant for Washington, considering that — like Alabama — UW’s starting quarterback could also be selected in the first round of the 2020 NFL draft. Jacob Eason has already suffered a significant injury as well, when the former Georgia Bulldog injured his knee and was promptly replaced by Jake Fromm in 2017.
Eason, a redshirt junior from Lake Stevens, may well decide to return to Washington for his senior season. But he knows, just as Tagovailoa knows, that any quarterback is one play, one fall, one freak accident away from potentially losing millions of dollars (or, in Eason’s case, his starting job).
Eason has to make a difficult decision — and you better believe the ever-present risk of injury is a prominent part of it. Is the prospect of possibly returning Washington to the top of the Pac-12 mountain worth that risk? We’ll find out soon enough.
But, if he does come back, don’t expect Petersen to pull his prized passer in the second quarter.