Todd Gurley was near the front of the line as he and his teammates wound their way through the Georgia campus on their traditional pregame “Dawg Walk,” through a tunnel into Sanford Stadium and finally onto a football field.
“Look at him,” a security guard said as Gurley walked past. “Oh, he’s mad. He’s gonna destroy somebody.”
He did. Quickly. But apparently referees have no respect for drama.
The first time Gurley touched a football in a game in six weeks, he took a kickoff six yards deep in the end zone against Auburn on Saturday night, shot up the middle like rockets were attached to his cleats, cut left through a gap at around the Georgia 30-yard line and boat-raced the field to the end zone. Sanford Stadium erupted.
And then …
The call was legitimate. Georgia’s Ryne Rankin grabbed an Auburn player in the area where Gurley cut left, although the poor guy likely would’ve grabbed nothing but vapor. The penalty was the biggest buzzkill Athens had seen since probably Ray Goff, even if the play left NFL scouts salivating before next year’s draft.
“He’ll be the first running back taken — by a lot,” said one scout in attendance.
The biggest question now is whether Gurley has played his final game at Georgia.
The Bulldogs pounded ninth-ranked Auburn 34-7 on an electric evening in Sanford Stadium. It was the program’s most impressive and dominating victory over a highly ranked opponent since beating then-No. 5 Auburn 37-15 in 2006.
“Absolutely that was a statement,” quarterback Hutson Mason said. “There’s a difference between winning and sticking a knife in somebody, and that’s what we did.”
But some of the steam was taken out of the celebration when Gurley suffered a left knee injury 5:21 left in the game and the Dogs leading 24-7. The tailback had just gained six yards to the Auburn 11. He went down without contact and did not appear to fall awkwardly, but remained on the ground for several minutes before finally being helped off the field.
The Sanford Stadium crowd, which had gone silent, gave him an ovation, but the sight of seeing Gurley sitting on a training table later with an ice bag, then leaving the stadium by ambulance was not promising.
Richt said he had not yet spoken to trainers and did not have an immediate update on Gurley. When asked if some of the steam had been taken out of the postgame celebration, he said, “Yeah, it did for me. Just not knowing, but it was a great victory.”
This was the team Georgia fans had hoped to see all season. Perhaps some exorcism took place after the Florida game.
The Dogs dominated an opponent that was ranked No. 3 in the nation until last week’s stunning loss to Texas A&M. The Tigers drove to a touchdown on the opening possession of the game, then didn’t score another point. It was the lowest output by Auburn since Gus Malzahn became the coach and Nick Marshall their quarterback in 2013. The Tigers had not been held to less than 20 points this year (that coming in a win over Kansas State).
Is Georgia a good team without Gurley? Yes. Nick Chubb showed again that he’s a more than adequate replacement, rushing for 144 yards and two touchdowns. The Dogs’ defense has come far this season under Jeremy Pruitt, the Florida game notwithstanding. But Gurley is the player who puts them over the top, even if he showed rust at times Saturday evening.
“I’d rather have Todd,” Chubb said when asked if the Dogs had proved their worth, even if Gurley can’t play the rest of the season. “He’s a game-changer. He can break one at any moment.”
The two tailbacks combined for 282 yards rushing. That nearly equaled Auburn’s entire offensive output (292 yards).
Chubb: “We were pretty much unstoppable. The offensive line kicking butt. The play-calling was great. I could get used to that.”
With Gurley and Chubb, this Georgia team is good enough to win the SEC title and give the college football rankings committee a difficult decision. (Would they put in a two-loss Georgia team, given the two losses came to Florida and South Carolina?) But without Gurley, their hopes would take a hit.
It didn’t appear early that it would be Georgia’s night. Trailing 7-0, the Dogs lost potential touchdowns three times in a span of less than two minutes. First came the holding penalty on Gurley’s return. Then came a dropped touchdown pass by freshman receiver Isaiah McKenzie on third-and-8 from the Auburn 44. On fourth down, Richt stunned the masses with a fake punt call, as Adam Erickson completed a pass to Shakenneth Williams at the Auburn 3 (where presumably the Dogs would’ve driven to a score). But Georgia was called for having an illegal man down field.
Richt was not pleased with the call. “I’ll have to see the replay,” he said later.
But to the Dogs’ credit, they rebounded to score the next 17 points on touchdowns by wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell and Chubb to take a lead into intermission.
Gurley left for several plays in the second quarter with what appeared to be an elbow injury, but Chubb took over. He rushed four times for 52 yards on one drive, including a 9-yard touchdown on fourth-and-1 to give Georgia a 14-7 lead.
The Sanford Stadium crowd was loud from the time the gates opened. Fans carried signs using Gurley’s 3 to replace an “e,” as in: “Unleash the B3ast” and “The R3-Turn.” Richt was so concerned with the players’ focus during the week with the attention being paid to Gurley that he significantly limited media access. But focus wasn’t issue.
The only question now is whether we’ve seen the last of Gurley before he goes to the NFL. If so, the Dogs are still a very good team. But if he’s back, there is no limit to what they can do.