ATLANTA — It took a little while to get going, but Alabama’s high-flying offense finally left the ground thanks to a resurgent showing from Tua Tagovailoa.
The Crimson Tide junior quarterback completed 26-of-31 passes for 336 yards and four touchdowns, much of it coming during a 35-point outburst between the second and third quarter of Saturday’s season-opening 42-3 win over Duke in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
It was a necessary bounce-back performance coming off his last appearance, when Clemson forced Tagovailoa into several costly mistakes — including two interceptions — in January's 44-16 national championship loss.
"Oh (it was) really fun, I think it's really fun for any offense when you're scoring continuously and you get into a rhythm and keep doing it," Tagovailoa said Saturday. "You're going to deal with adversity, and it's just how you move on, the next play mentality, and that's what we've got to have."
After coming out of the gate slower than it did much of last season, Alabama’s explosive offense produced 422 of its 512 total yards following a dismal first quarter, during which four players — running backs Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr., receiver Devonta Smith and linebacker Terrell Lewis — were suspended after reportedly missing a team function in the preseason.
Tagovailoa credited Duke's "exotic" defensive approach to the slow start offensively, but it was clear not having some key playmakers available made establishing any rhythm near impossible, especially after a fumble by third-string running back Jerome Ford ended Alabama's second series deep in its own territory.
"We were probably not firing on all cylinders for whatever reasons, maybe (there was) a little anxious for some of the new players," head coach Nick Saban said. "And you know what, (there were) a couple players that weren't playing early in the game, so we had some young players playing at some positions. But first-game jitters. I'm not making excuses for anybody."
After managing just 90 total yards in the first quarter, including just 6 yards through its opening two series, Tagovailoa and the Tide’s Big 4 at receiver finally got into a groove through the air, with Tagovailoa completing all nine second-quarter passes he attempted for 145 yards and a 27-yard touchdown to junior tight end Miller Forristall.
"We talked about it all week and had it put in, and I knew there was a shot of it getting called," Forristall said of his early second-quarter score.
In its first game under first-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who was calling his first collegiate game since the 2016 national title contest, the Tide offense failed to find any running room against Duke early, and decided to just go with what worked last season: going airborne.
"I think that Sark did a good job in the game. You never know how first games are going to go," Saban said. "I think we started out a little bit maybe trying to run the ball and then we just decided, hey, the way they're playing, we're going to have to throw the ball on first down and get the ball to our playmakers' hands on the perimeter and make them play on the perimeter, and when we started doing that, I think that those guys made a lot of plays."
Junior receiver Jerry Jeudy was the biggest beneficiary of Tagovailoa’s big day through the air, hauling in a team-leading 10 receptions for 137 yards and a 21-yard touchdown to put the Tide up 35-3 before leaving with 1:36 remaining in the third quarter.
"Tua was doing what Tua do, just making plays and executing plays," Jeudy said. "And doing whatever to be the best player he can be. You know how Tua do."
Sophomore receiver Jaylen Waddle added 90 yards on five receptions and Smith had 54 yards on his five receptions, four of which came in the second quarter, and an 8-yard touchdown pass from Tagovailoa with 7:32 left in the third quarter.
Alabama’s ground game didn’t have nearly the same success, managing just 145 yards rushing with Ford — who started in place of Harris and Robinson Jr. and fumbled on his third carry of the game — leading the way with 64 rushing yards on 10 carries, most coming on his 37-yard touchdown run with 4:51 left in the game. Harris added 52 yards on 12 carries while Robinson managed 9 yards on nine carries, but did manage to find the end zone once Saturday.
"For a guy like Jerome Ford, when he fumbled, he had the opportunity to make up for it, and he did," Tagovailoa said. "I think that's what it's all about for our football team, raising the younger guys up so if anyone gets hurt or something happens, they'll be able to step up."
Defensively, the Tide kept Duke out of the end zone despite allowing some explosive plays of its own, mostly with a strong pass rush aided by the return of Lewis, who had a sack in his first game since the 2017 postseason after missing all of last season with an ACL injury.
Knee injuries continued to be a cause of concern this preseason as Alabama lost both its projected starting inside linebackers — Dylan Moses and Joshua McMillon — for the season earlier this month.
Their replacements, true freshmen Shane Lee and Christian Harris, had six tackles each with Lee providing a big tackle on fourth-and-1 on the Tide’s 7-yard line with Duke challenging midway through the first quarter Saturday.
“They looked good, I loved the fact that throughout the week, even before all the controversy, they’ve been those kind of guys that want to learn, make sure they do everything right,” Lewis said of Lee and Harris. “So having them out there with that energy … it was good knowing we’ve got young guys that are really alert and they want it just as bad as everyone else.”