The emotions going into this Georgia season were similar to those of so many others — excitement over talent that teases the imagination with a potentially high ceiling, tempered by the scar tissue of too many past fizzles that cold-slaps everybody back to mid-level-bowl reality.
Would one of the land’s best defensive coordinators (Jeremy Pruitt) be able to heal and nurture a cracked defense, or would this be Todd Grantham/Willie Martinez on an endless loop?
Would quarterback Hutson Mason re-create the one-year magic of D.J. Shockley or the one-year flop of Joe Cox?
Would Todd Gurley be healthy and great or injured and absent?
The answers will come over the next four months. But at least one thing was affirmed in Saturday night’s opener against Clemson: Georgia has a player who can make up for a lot of mistakes.
Todd Gurley is special. When he’s on the field, everybody else fades into the background, like beige wallpaper.
The junior running back scored four touchdowns on runs of 23, 18 and 51 yards and a 100-yard kickoff return to lead Georgia’s 45-21 victory against Clemson at Sanford Stadium.
As long as Gurley remains upright, everything is on the table this season: An SEC East Division title. An SEC championship. A national championship.
He is that good. He is that much of a game-changer. He managed to dominate a game in which he carried the ball 15 times (totaling 198 yards for an amusing 13.2 per carry). Coach Mark Richt and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo seemed to want to take it easy on their injury prone back on a warm and humid evening (including giving him only four handoffs in the first half). So Gurley basically morphed into a dragster on almost every carry.
A number of NFL scouts attended the game. Every one of them wanted to kidnap Gurley.
Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason cracked, “The view was pretty nice. I was coming over to the sideline, saying like, ‘I’m out here balling!’ I was just handing the ball off, but I really don’t care. If that’s how we’ll win games, that’s fine. I have one goal in mind and that’s Atlanta (for the SEC Championship game).”
By halftime, Gurley already had a 23-yard touchdown run and a 100-yard kickoff return, providing most of the Georgia highlights in a 21-all half. After his second-quarter blastoff on the return — when Gurley made everybody on Clemson’s coverage team appear to have their ankles duct-taped together — Falcons wide receiver Roddy White typed this on Twitter: “That’s a 230 pound man running that fast. #I’mreadyforthenfl”
Yeah. About that senior season for Gurley: It’s probably not happening.
The only surprising thing about the first half was that he wasn’t on the field more often. He touched the ball only five times on offense (four rushes for 44 yards, one catch for minus-5, as well as the return). But he was utilized more in the second half and proceeded to take over.
“We weren’t really on offense that much, and when we were we went three-and-out a couple times,” Gurley said, explaining his first half inactivity. “The first two times I ran there were a lot of (defenders) in the box so we had to open it up with the passing game. But eventually I got more carries.”
When asked about himself, he credited his offensive line and the other running backs on the team. He’s not big on talking about himself, nor interviews, period.
When asked how good this team can be, he responded, “Very high ceiling. We just have to keep our edge, have that tunnel vision and keep working.”
This Georgia season could well come down to the success of two men: Gurley and Pruitt. Neither is especially fond of speaking to the media, but that’s fine. If both perform to expectations, the story of Georgia’s season will write itself.
Pruitt, whose No. 1-ranked scoring defense (12.1 points per game) enabled Florida State to win the national championship, had an immediate impact on a Georgia defense that was significantly less successful under Todd Grantham (29 per game, ranked 78th nationally).
Clemson scored consecutive touchdowns in the second quarter to take a 21-14 lead. But the Bulldogs held the Tigers scoreless the rest of the game, which covered nine possessions (seven punts, one interception, one missed field goal).
The Tigers scored on their opening possession. That was the bad. Here’s the good: Clemson failed to gain a first down on its next three possessions and netted seven yards.
Georgia offense, meanwhile, moved the ball effectively after its opening possession and could have scored on three consecutive drives. Gurley’s first touchdown run for 23 yards tied it. A 2-yard scoring sneak by Mason – a 36-yard drive set up by the defense – made it 14-7. But sandwiched in between was a drive that ended on the Clemson 9 on a disputed fumble by Bennett (determined by replay).
Georgia’s defensive front, which was expected to be a strength this season, struggled to create much pressure early against Clemson quarterbacks. That was problematic for the secondary. The Tigers had 78- and 68-yard touchdown drives on their next two possessions, largely because of the passing of freshman Deshaun Watson (30-yard TD pass) and Cole Stoudt (35-yard completion and a deep pass leading to an interference penalty at the Georgia 13, setting up a short scoring run).
But Clemson’s 21-14 lead lasted for only one commercial break.
Gurley took back the ensuing kickoff 100 yards to tie it.
“I knew I had a chance as soon as I got the ball,” he said.
Marshall Morgan kicked a 27-yard field goal to give Georgia the lead. Gurley took it from there. He ran for 158 yards and two scores in the second half. Nobody could touch him. If he can stay healthy, nobody will.
Everything is on the table for Georgia. Everything.