TUSCALOOSA — The questions began even before Tua Tagovailoa suffered a horrific and potentially career-altering right hip injury with about three minutes remaining in the first half of Saturday’s 38-7 win at Mississippi State.
In what could be the lasting memory of his record-shattering collegiate career at Alabama, Tagovailoa sustained a season-ending right hip dislocation.
But as Alabama’s gunslinging southpaw writhed on the turf in agony — reportedly “screaming in pain,” according to ESPN — after crumbling beneath the combined weight of two MSU defenders at a deathly quiet Davis Wade Stadium, the criticisms and second-guessing began in earnest, be it over social media or in the ESPN television booth from inside the Starkville press box.
“This is the sight Nick Saban did obviously not want to see, up 35-7, the natural reaction is: why is he still out there?” ESPN color commentator and former NFL quarterback Brian Griese said live on air as Crimson Tide medical personnel were shown attending to Tagovailoa.
Although others were quick to defend the merits of playing Tagovailoa in that situation, the questions still lingered, even as Saban himself ran across the field to check on his star quarterback.
Why was Tagovailoa, the uber-talented Heisman Trophy contender who entered Saturday as a “game-time decision” while still recovering from a tightrope surgical procedure on his right ankle performed four weeks ago, still in the game? Alabama already led the host Bulldogs by four touchdowns in the closing minutes of the first half.
ESPN college football analyst and former Georgia defensive end David Pollack was among the most outspoken with an immediate post on Twitter: “Why in the hail (sic) is Tua in the game when you are up 35-7? That makes no sense. None!”
Minutes earlier, sophomore backup Mac Jones was spotted stretching and warming up behind the Crimson Tide bench before nervously pacing the sideline during the previous defensive series as if he was preparing to enter the game for the first time. But when the offense gathered on the field following a change in possession, it was Tagovailoa in the middle speaking directly with his head coach.
“We can second-guess ourselves all we want,” Saban said after the game. “We told Mac to warm up, we were going to go two-minute before the half. Tua wanted to play in the game, so … I don’t really make a lot of decisions based on worrying about guys getting hurt.”
During a pre-halftime interview on the field, Saban said Tagovailoa went back out to get some additional work running Alabama’s two-minute offense in a live game, an experience Saban believed could benefit both the quarterback and the team later on in the season.
“Look, the way I look at this whole thing is, Tua’s our No. 1 quarterback. If he’s physically-able to play, we wanted to play him in the game. That’s what he wanted to do, and that’s what our team wanted to do,” Saban said. “If I would’ve known that anything bad was going to happen, I certainly wouldn’t have put him in that situation. But we’re a team, and we’re a team that’s trying to get better in the long-term in the long run and see if we can finish the season the way we want. … I hate it that the guy got hurt.”
Tagovailoa guided Alabama to five straight scoring drives to open the game. Tagovailoa finished 14-of-18 passing for 256 yards, but had back-to-back incompletions to end his day, including a throwaway on a scramble to his left just before the fateful tackle from behind by Mississippi State defenders Leo Lewis and Marquiss Spencer.
Alabama director of sports medicine and head trainer Jeff Allen, along with two other medical staffers, immediately came to Tagovailoa’s side, with Allen quickly placing a towel over his bleeding face. Tagovailoa was bleeding profusely from a gash to the bridge of his nose after his helmet was ripped off upon impact with the turf.
As they attempted to hoist the quarterback to his feet, it became apparent to the crowd of more than 50,000 and the many more watching from home that Tagovailoa couldn’t put weight on his right leg. He eventually was carted off the field and to the stadium’s X-ray room before being airlifted to St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Birmingham for testing and evaluation.
"We hate it that he got injured. We hate it for him; we hate it for his family. I hate it if any player on our team gets injured,” Saban said of Tagovailoa. “God speed to him and his entire family, and our thoughts and prayers are with him. And (we) hope it's not so serious that is has any long-term effect on his future as a player.”
After the game, Saban described Tagovailoa’s injury as a “kind of a freak thing that you seldom see,” and the rarity of a hip dislocation of this magnitude — an injury more commonly associated with high-speed car wrecks — can’t be understated according to two renown orthopedic surgeons with NFL connections that spoke to the Montgomery Advertiser later Saturday.
“You rarely see this,” said Dr. Mark Adickes, a former NFL offensive lineman who is a practicing orthopedic surgeon and ESPN medical expert. “It does happen, but a hip dislocation is an exceedingly rare injury.”
Added longtime Houston Texans team surgeon Dr. Walt Lowe: “It’s pretty unusual. … I’ve seen two of these in 21 years (as an NFL team physician). They’re not real common.”
Given that, any specific timetable for recovery is uncertain at the moment. Both doctors said it won't be certain for at least another six to nine months.
Even so, there remains a hopeful optimism Tagovailoa will be able to recover in due time and resume his projected career path, including the possibility of going high in the NFL draft.
“He is expected to make a full recovery, but will miss the remainder of the season,” said respected Alabama team orthopedic surgeon Dr. Lyle Cain of the Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Clinic.
Contact Montgomery Advertiser sports reporter Alex Byington at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @_AlexByington.