Tua Tagovailoa currently sits at the top of many pundits Heisman-watch boards. The kid has impeccable footwork, perhaps the best in the country. He sidesteps edge rushers smoothly and with ease, and does a terrific job of always planting his feet and delivering an accurate throw even when under pressure or on the run. He’s a great dual threat QB with a powerful NFL arm, and he’s had a flawless start to the 2019 season: 7 TD’s, 0 INT’s for a 66.7% completion rate, and a 93.5 QBR.
So, what is Tua’s weakness? Against Clemson in the 2019 national title, he was still fairly poised, maintained good footwork, and made quick decisions all game long. What seemed to affect him the most was the consistent pressure the Tigers threw in his face. In the first quarter of the game, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables was content blitzing Tua over and over, not worrying as much about covering receivers and closing windows. At first, Tua did a good job getting the ball out quickly and accurately, despite the pressure. As the Tigers were playing man to man defense against the best receiving corps in the country, Tua had open options to throw to all night long, and he did so with fair success in the first half, going 15/17 for 158 yards through the air. What started to break him through was Clemson’s commitment to sending pressure after him. Even when the Tide was throwing 60 yard bombs for TD’s, Clemson stuck with the strategy of prioritizing pressuring Tua, and it began to wear him out, forcing a few game-changing mistakes. In fact, the only two incompletions of Tua’s in the first half were two interceptions, one which was returned for a touchdown. So while he did have a dazzling completion rate of 88%, those two bad basses Clemson forced made all the difference in the game, and completely disrupted Alabama’s offensive consistency and confidence. Tua’s accuracy in the first quarter compared to the fourth took a major turn for the worse, and Nick Saban had no answer with a lackluster run game and a shaken QB.
Throughout all of last season, teams tried to defend Alabama’s offense by prioritizing receiver coverage. The problem is, Tua is too good to not succeed, even with terrific secondary play. In order to really challenge Alabama’s offense, it is a must that you consistently pressure Tua, even if that means sacrificing the success of your secondary. Corner blitz him, send LB’s after him, just force him into so many quick decisions that he eventually makes a bad one amidst all the good ones. That is what breaks his rhythm, because Tua is not used to throwing interceptions. He only had four all season long until the Clemson game.
Alabama is also in an unusual situation the past couple years in that they don’t have one of the best running games in the nation. Their passing attack in phenomenal, without a doubt the best in the nation, but their rushing attack is just decent. Not bad by any means, but just good, not great.
So with this in mind, what do the Gamecocks do? The answer is neutralize the Tide’s best player - the centerpiece of their offense - the cog that makes the whole machine work. The key to this game is sending enough bodies after Tua so that the pocket is consistently claustrophobic, not even collapsed, every play. The thing is, Tua will be good no matter what. Multiple deep passes will be made, touchdowns will be scored, 300 or more passing yards is likely. But in order for South Carolina to have a chance, you have to have faith that consistent pressure will force enough errors out of Tua, which will start to negatively affect his overall play. The Gamecocks’ best aspect on their defense is the line. DJ Wonnum, Javon Kinlaw, and everyone in that rotation has to have the game of their life. Line up every down with the goal of being in Tua’s face by the end of the play, and perhaps South Carolina has a chance of cracking Tua and Saban. It’s all a matter of what you prioritize covering or pressuring on defense.
When you want to break a system, you start at the top. The rest cannot function without it.