Once again, Clemson didn’t see a lot of Todd Gurley. But Georgia showed the Tigers — and the nation — enough to get his Heisman Trophy campaign started and give the Bulldogs a season-opening victory.
With former Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker in attendance, No. 12 Georgia used their prized junior tailback sparingly. He had only four carries at halftime, but it paid off in the second half as a fresh and strong Gurley cherry-picked his way to 198 yards rushing on just 15 carries and four touchdowns in a resounding 45-21 against No. 16 Clemson.
One of Gurley’s scores came on a 104-yard kickoff return in the first half. By the time Georgia had the game well under control midway through the fourth quarter Gurley left the game for good, he had amassed a school-record 293 all-purpose yards. It came on just 16 touches, which works out to an average of 17.24 yards per touch.
“That was fun, man,” said Gurley. “Probably one of the best games I’ve ever been a part of. I knew I didn’t have a lot of carries. Coach (Mark) Richt came up to me and said, ‘come on, Gurley, you only have like 10 carries.’ I said, ‘gimme the ball then.’ After that I was getting it a little bit more.”
The game-tipper for Georgia came on Gurley’s 18-yard cut-back run for a touchdown an a toss sweep right early in the fourth quarter. That gave the Bulldogs a 31-21 lead and broke what open what had been a fairly sedate second half to that point.
It wouldn’t stay that way. When the Bulldogs gave Gurley yet another blow on their next possession, freshman Nick Chubb came in and immediately took a toss sweep to the right 47 yards down the sideline for another touchdown. Now the blowout was on.
Georgia brought Gurley in one more time and he did it again. At the 7:34 mark, he duplicated the youngster’s feat and went 51 yards down the home sideline for his fourth score of the night.
“We wanted to keep everybody fresh,” Richt said of the light load for the player he called “the best player in America.”
He added: “I don’t know if you noticed, but we subbed a lot on defense, too. … We knew going in we were going to sub a lot.”
Four of Georgia’s five tailbacks had carries, including junior Keith Marshall and freshman Sony Michel, and they accounted for 301 of the Bulldogs’ 328 rushing yards.
The victory was a nice way to raise the curtain on the 2014 season, Georgia’s 121st in football. The win offered redemption for last year’s 38-35 season-opening loss at Clemson that brought down then-No. 6 Bulldogs. Georgia improves to 11-3 in season-openers under Richt and 37-1 against non-conference opponents at Sanford Stadium.
Gurley’s carries were also limited the last time Georgia played Clemson, but that was due to a thigh injury. He had only 12 in that game but still finished with 154 yards.
This time he had only four carries at halftime, five if one includes his 1oo-yard kickoff return.
“There was a point where I said wanted to get the ball more,” Gurley said. “… But I had a lot more energy than I usually do. It’s all good. It’s week one, you can’t go out there and expect 30 carries. You’ve got to work yourself into condition. And that was the plan, to play a lot of guys.”
As for using Gurley on kickoff returns, that was a secret Georgia carried into the game.
Asked when they decided to put Gurley back there, Richt said, “two years ago. We just cheesed up and were afraid to keep our tailback back there. This year we’re playing our best players on special teams, and he’s one of our best players.”
Georgia’s defense, under first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, also had an impact in the outcome. Clemson played the entire second half from deep in its territory. The Bulldogs recorded five sacks, two each by linebackers Leonard Floyd and Amarlo Herrera and one by outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins.
“I’m glad the defense did what we did in the second half,” Jenkins said. “That just shows all the hard work and effort we put in during the offseason. Coach Pruitt said keep doing what you’ve been doing. We’re a fourth-quarter team, we’re not going to give in.”
If not for Gurley’s kickoff return, which tied the game at 21, the Bulldogs were in position to get shown up in the first half. They were outgained by the Tigers 276 to 113 in the first two quarters and avoided further humiliation when Clemson missed a 34-yard field goal and freshman Aaron Davis intercepted a Cole Stoudt pass.
Gurley’s kickoff return, which came from about four yards deep in the East end zone, came right after the Tigers had driven 68 yards in 10 plays to take a 21-14 lead on C.J. Davidson’s 1-yard leap for a touchdown with 7:28 remaining in the half.
“They were kicking them deep,” said Gurley, who had a 100-yard TD return as a freshman. “I told Brendan (Douglas), the second one I wanted to take out and I told him on the one before I was going to take the next one. And I did.”
As expected, the Heisman questions came for Gurley as soon as the game was over.
“It’s only week one,” he said. “We’ve got like 15 more weeks to go.”