BATON ROUGE, La. — There was a full row of NFL scouts in the back row of the press box at Tiger Stadium on Saturday night. They had a lot to take note of with all the top-notch prospects on the field for No. 1 Alabama at No. 3 LSU.
But then when sophomore Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who is still a year away from being eligible to enter the league, took off and ran for a 44-yard touchdown, they all had the same reaction.
One lingered from the Arizona Cardinals, but when Alabama shoved the ball down the throat of the tired LSU defense to wrap up the 29-0 victory, he had already headed to the elevator.
Like the 102,321 fans clearing out early, they had all seen enough.
With that in mind, consider the Heisman Trophy. It’s a month away from being awarded and Alabama still has four games to play. Next week it faces a ranked opponent, followed by college football’s biggest rivalry and then the SEC Championship Game.
But it would be a complete shock if Tagovailoa doesn’t win.
He’s simply been that good this season.
“It’s awesome having him back there,” junior tight end Irv Smith Jr. said. “I’m just so grateful.”
If you saw the touchdown pass Smith caught Saturday night, you know why. The LSU defender had good coverage on the play, and Tagovailoa still hit the tight hole.
Overall, he was 25-for-42 for 295 yards, two touchdowns thrown plus the one he scored on his feet.
Overall, with his first interception of the season, after 26 touchdown throws, Tagovailoa’s passer rating was 129.5 It was his worst of the season. But even the pick ended up working in Alabama’s favor because safety Todd Harris Jr. was tackled at the LSU 4.
When the Crimson Tide defense forced a quick three-and-out, the offense took advantage of the great field position and notched another touchdown.
“That was a good play by the DB,” Tagovailoa said. “I should have never made that decision. Things happen. I’m happy for him. That’s good for him.”
Three things didn’t go well for Tagovailoa in the game, although his coach could laugh about one of them afterward.
On Alabama’s first possession the Crimson Tide was called for a false start, but it didn’t stop the LSU defenders from taking a shot at the quarterback who knew that the play was dead.
The initial fear was that Tagovailoa had reinjured his knee.
Um, not quite.
“I’m not going to tell you where he got hit, but I’m glad that’s where he got hit because I knew he’d be right back,” Nick Saban said.
He did and Alabama promptly scored a touchdown.
The second problem was the crowd noise, which contributed to the false start and hit because no one could hear the whistle. It’s one thing to be told that Death Valley is loud, but another to experience. It was deafening when Alabama had the ball.
“It was very loud tonight, very loud,” Tagovailoa said. “It wasn’t just loud for the first, second, third, fourth and fifth series. It was loud consistently throughout the whole game, until it got towards the like the fourth quarter.
“But even then in the fourth quarter it was still kind of loud.”
Early on, senior center Ross Pierschbacher couldn’t hear Tagovailoa clap his hands to signal for the snap, which led to the initial drive faltering. So the adjustment Alabama made was a simple one, go to a silent count.
“We had no issues after that,” Pierschbacher said.
Finally, there was Tagovailoa’s sprained knee, which got significantly better during the bye week, but still isn’t 100 percent. That became obvious during his touchdown run, followed by his pulling at the brace and limping back to the sideline.
“Once I got to the 30 I felt my leg,” he said. “I was going on momentum after that. I was galloping too.”
Tagovailoa did stay in the game, which otherwise could have been a serious cause for concern as junior Jalen Hurts (ankle) was unavailable and redshirt freshman Mac Jones the backup.
While he remained un-phased, the Crimson Tide scored a final touchdown. Tagovailoa only threw his first fourth-quarter pass so far this season, a 24-yard completion to Jerry Jeudy, and was finally pulled for the final three plays after Tigers Stadium had emptied out.
They already knew what’s coming next.
Some of them probably wondered what Tagovailoa might have done completely healthy.
“He’s a great player. He made some tremendous plays tonight,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said. “He’s one of the best players I’ve seen.”
Make that the best anyone’s seen this season.