Jalen Hurts completed the most improbable of endings. The last time I did a game review of Hurts, it...hurt (#noregrets). 11 months prior, he was benched in the same stadium, against the same team.
Hurts endured that benching and the subsequence offseason full of people speculating about what his motives were, about how he felt, about what he would do.
While he couldn’t tune that out completely, he just kept on. Hurts worked with a dedicated QB coach for the first time in his college career; and, after it became inevitable that Tua Tagovailoa would not relinquish the starting role he seized in the national championship, Hurts kept on working, trying to improve.
And improve he did. Hurts heads into the playoffs having completed 74.6% of his passes, averaging 11.3 yards per attempt, with a 4-1 touchdown to interception ratio, and a 202.72 passer rating.
Sure, the vast majority of that came as a back-up; but that’s still serious improvement. Plus, his numbers in two drives in the SEC Championship were just as excellent: 77.8% completion percentage, 9.1 yards per attempt, 190.98 passer rating, and 1 touchdown with no interceptions, plus 28 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
Here’s how he did it.
3rd and 12: It’s Hurts’ second play after a run by Najee Harris resulted in a 2 yard loss. He’s in the gun with Damien Harris (#34) on his left hip. Irv Smith (#82) is in-line on the left, and there are three receivers in a bunch around the right hashmark. Georgia is showing blitz with both inside linebackers in the A gaps (between the center and guards). On the snap, both linebackers drop back into, leaving Georgia with just 3 rushers. Hurts surveys the field and spots where he wants to go. He takes a few steps to his left to avoid the pressure, sets, and rifles a perfect throw to Irv Smith, who’s sitting just shy of the line to gain. Smith catches and turns to the inside, and he picks up the couple extra needed yards for the first down. It’s the first third down conversion of the day for the Tide.
3rd and 5: Hurts is quickly facing another third down, and the offense is in the same formation as the previous play. Jerry Jeudy (#4) and another receiver I can’t tell the number of both run shallow crossing routes. The Dawgs bring an extra rusher, and there is immediate pressure from the right side (as good as Damien Harris normally is at pass-blocking, the 6’4, 300lbs defensive lineman Tyler Clark blows him up). Hurts scrambles to the right and backwards - at one point he’s a good 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage. However, Hurts keeps his eyes downfield while running; and he spots Jaylen Waddle (#17). He heaves a pass in mid-stride, placing it perfectly; and Waddle makes an NFL catch on the sideline for a huge first down. Hurts threw this ball while running, with defenders bearing down on him, 36 yards down the field to the exact right spot.
2nd and 8: While those previous two throws show you how Hurts has improved as a passer, he still has those wheels, too. Alabama has trips wide left and Waddle the lone receiver wide right. Hurts fakes the smoke screen to Henry Ruggs (#11) on the left, but Georgia doesn’t bite and covers the go route by Jeudy. Hurts isn’t pressured, but he sees his opening on the right. The linebacker is in man coverage on Damien Harris, who has flared out to that side, and has his back to Hurts. Hurts takes off, once again getting very deep. Harris turns upfield and brings the linebacker with him while Jaylen Waddle turns to block the corner on him. Now Hurts just has to beat the 245lb linebacker to the edge, and he does. First down Alabama.
3rd and goal: The promising drive is at risk of stalling out. DeVonta Smith (#6) and Jeudy are to the left; Irv Smith and Ruggs are to the right. Damien Harris is to Hurts’ left. Jeudy motions to the right. He runs to the outside initially before breaking back inside while Smith runs down the seam and Ruggs runs a shallow crosser. The defensive back is right on top of Jeudy, and I can’t quite tell what the other. Even if the throw is there, the defender likely takes Jeudy down shy of the goal line. So Hurts doesn’t pull the trigger, and now the pressure is getting through. He takes off to the right. Jeudy sees this and wheels around, getting deep in the endzone and breaking to the same sideline as Hurts. One of the safeties comes crashing down to prevent the easy rushing touchdown and force Hurts to beat them with his arm. And he does. Again, Hurts flicks it while on the move; and he places it in front of Jeudy where the defender can’t make a play. Bama has tied it all up.
3rd and 8 (Ignore CBS’s graphic that says 3rd and 7): Hurts has three receivers on the right, including Irv Smith as the #3 receiver (it’s counted from the sideline in). Georgia initially rushes for but brings the linebacker on a delayed blitz while one of the initial rushes hangs back spying Hurts. The offensive line does its job admirably, and Hurts has time to stand in the pocket and wait for the play to develop. Smith runs a dig route almost 17-18 yards deep (which happens to be right at Bulovas’s career-long), but he is not open. The defender is right on top of him. No matter, though. Smith uses his big frame to box out the linebacker, and Hurts, again, places the ball perfectly. Smith does fumble at the end, but he quickly falls on it. Alabama is technically in field goal range, but we all remember what happened last time we tried to beat Georgia with a field goal.
1st and 10: It’s the following play. Alabama again has three receivers to the right, though Irv Smith is at H-back instead of flexed out. And, fun thing to notice, 6’6 redshirt freshman Tyrell Shavers is the lone wide receiver on the left. It’s probably from working with Hurts on the second team, but I thought Shavers getting some real action in such a crucial spot was worth noting. Anyway. On the right, Ruggs is the #1; and Waddle is the #2. Ruggs runs a quick hitch while Waddle runs a deeper out route. The cornerback on Ruggs plays him close, so Hurts knows he has a window to hit Waddle. And he does. The throw is high, which exposes Waddle to a big hit; but it means no defender has a shot at a tip or interception. Waddle makes the catch.
1st and 10: Alabama has two receivers on either side, and Damien Harris is against on the left hip of Hurts. Georgia is showing Cover-1 with a single high safety shaded to the field side, right in between the two hashmarks. One linebacker rushes, and center Ross Pierschbacher charges to meet him. The other runs to cover Harris flaring out left. The two receivers on the left both angle to the sideline, drawing the two cornerbacks that way. The two receivers on the right run a go route, which completely turns around one corner, and an out route, which draws the other towards the sideline. Everything is designed to draw defenders to the outside and leave open field in the middle. Hurts takes one step back on the snap and takes off running. That deep safety spots it right away, but he has to get over and make the tackle. And he takes an awful angle. Instead of getting in front of Hurts and forcing him to make a move or go through him, he ends up hitting him from the back left; and he doesn’t reach Hurts until he’s past the 3 yard line. That’s all she wrote.