The black-clad crowd of 92,746 rose to their feet and applauded as Gurley walked off the field under his own power. But he was limping significantly and was spent the next several minutes on the bench with his left leg elevated and the knee heavily wrapped in ice and clear plastic.
The game continued much the way it had the resy of the night, with Gurley’s understudy Nick Chubb finishing the drive in one carry with an 11-yard touchdown. It was Chubb’s second TD of the game and would end his night with 144 yards on only 19 carries. The Bulldogs rushed for 289 yards as a team and finished with 412 total yards in what proved to be the most lopsided defeat of Gus Malzahn’s two-year career as Auburn’s head coach.
“It was an awesome night with a little buzzkill topping at the end,” said senior quarterback Hutson Mason, who had 123 yards and a touchdown on 10-of-19 passing.
Gurley’s injury spoiled one of the few feel-good stories for the Bulldogs this season. Gurley was playing for the first time since serving a four-game, NCAA-mandated suspension that began Oct. 9. He hit the field with a bang, returning the Bulldogs’ first kickoff of the night 104 yards for a touchdown that ended up being negated by an almost imperceptible holding penalty.
Gurley started slowly, managing nine yards on four carries in the first quarter. But his hard, between-the-tackles runs gradually began to reap dividends. He nearly broke loose with a 13-yard run in the second quarter and almost went the distance again on a 31-yard run midway through the fourth quarter.
All the while, Chubb would one-up his upperclassman teammate. He was the first to score on a 9-yard run in the second quarter and had a highlight-reel, 20-yard run in the third quarter that was at first ruled a touchdown before a review revealed he stepped on the sideline when he trucked Auburn’s Jonathan Mincy.
Generally, Chubb out-shined the one-time Heisman front-runner. He said he was “bummed” to see Gurley have to leave via Georgia State patrol car rather than on the team bus.
“Todd’s a tough dude,” said Chubb, who went over 1,000 yards for the season with 1,039. “He’s been through a lot, and he’s faced a lot of adversity. I don’t think this is going to slow him down at all.”
Almost lost in all the explosive plays and drama was the fact that the 15th-ranked Bulldogs (8-2, 6-2 SEC) could possibly realize their preseason goal of playing in the SEC Championship game. Having played their final conference game of the season, Georgia needs only for Missouri — which it defeated34-0 on Oct. 11 — to lose one of its last two games for the Bulldogs to be crowned Eastern Division champions.
That almost happened Saturday night. Texas A&M had a fourth-and-1 at the Missouri 2 trailing 34-27 with less than three minutes remaining in College Station. But the Aggies failed to convert or score and Missouri (8-2, 5-1) held on to win. The Tigers play at Tennessee next week and close the regular season at home against Arkansas.
“We’ve done all we could do today,” Richt said. “We can’t change what happened at South Carolina or what happened to Florida. All we could control was what happened today, and we did that.”
On defense as well as offense, as it turns out. Auburn’s point total was its lowest in its two years under coach Gus Malzahn, as was the 292 yards of offense were a low under his leadership. The Tigers had three turnovers to none for Georgia, raising the Bulldogs’ nationally recognized turnover margin for the year to plus-16.
“With the way those guys score points and run up and down the field, it’s hard to put into perspective holding them to seven points,” cornerback Damian Swann said. “But it goes to show how well we prepare, how well we practice, how well we tackle and run to the football. We did all the little things right.”
And the big things, too. Linebacker Amarlo Herrera intercepted a pass at the 2-yard line to thwart a late-Auburn threat and the Bulldogs also recovered two fumbles.
“Obviously this is a disppointing loss,” said Malzahn who saw his team fall to 7-3 and 4-3 in SEC play. “Congratulations to Georgia. They have a good team. They beat us in all three phases.”
The Bulldogs’ victory also avenged last year’s “Prayer at Jordan-Hare,” in which the Tigers scored on a 73-yard, deflected TD pass with 25 seconds left to score a 43-38 win. It also evened the record in the “Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry” at 55-55-8.