ATHENS, Ga. -- With legendary running back Herschel Walker and 92,745 others in attendance, Georgia had a chance to redeem its 38-35 loss to Clemson to open the 2013 season. It got a Walker-like effort out of junior Todd Gurley, plus a stout defensive performance, as the Bulldogs trounced the Tigers 45-21.
Georgia made the decision to conserve Gurley’s strength on a blazing hot day that reached 92 degrees (with over 80-percent humidity). He had just four offensive touches in the first half, as Mark Richt rationed Gurley’s carries like batteries during a zombie apocalypse. Gurley made the most of his chances, though, encapsulated by a bruising 19-yard run midway through the third quarter in which he broke one tackle, shook another defender off and dragged a third would-be tackler five yards.
“I think he’s the best player in America,” Richt said after the game. "... If you look at all the yards after contact -- we block pretty good -- but he blasted through a lot of tackles and kept going. I’m not going to say he did it all on his own, but there’s a lot of times he got what he got and people came to tackle him one or two guys at the same time to try and get him on the ground, and they couldn’t do it.”
Keeping Gurley fresh paid dividends for Georgia, as the junior broke a 38-yard run with just over 12 minutes remaining to get the Bulldogs to Clemson's 42-yard line. A few plays later, Gurley cut once and seemingly teleported 18 yards for the score to put Georgia up 31-21. Freshman Nick Chubb tacked on a quick-strike 47-yard score with 8:53 to play. And Gurley punctuated his effort with a 51-yard touchdown sprint with 7:34 to go. The Bulldogs finished with 328 yards on the ground.
“It’s going to be the Todd Gurley show,” Chubb said. “He’s going to get a majority of the carries because he’s a beast. He’s a very good running back. All the other running backs, we’re there to keep him going and keep him fresh.”
Clemson struck first in a deafeningly loud Sanford Stadium, engineering a creative 70-yard touchdown drive that D.J. Howard capped with a one-yard dive into the end zone. There’s a reason Clemson ponies up $1.3 million annually for offensive coordinator Chad Morris, and the opening drive was a perfect example of its rationale. But new starting quarterback Cole Stoudt and the Tigers couldn’t sustain that caliber of play, as Georgia’s defense recovered to limit big gains.
The Bulldogs defense was frequently beaten over the top last season, and the secondary was the weak spot in some crucial losses. Jeremy Pruitt, the coordinator of Florida State’s dominant defense last fall, has a reputation for letting his guys play first and think later, and that mentality showed. The Bulldogs' defenders looked loose and forced Clemson into difficult third-and-long situations.
After stumbling on their first offensive drive, the Bulldogs got a stop and answered with the 23-yard run by Gurley. The Heisman hopeful also scored on a 100-yard kick return; it was Gurley’s second 100-yard return in his career, and a big part of his school-record 293 all-purpose yards.
“Every time we did our job something good happened,” center David Andrews said. “We knew we could do some big things.”
Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason was the definition of adequate, going 18-of-26 for 131 yards. Richt said Mason’s day was “not spectacular, but it was solid.” The senior didn’t take many downfield shots (he didn’t have to with the way Georgia’s backs were running), opting instead for underneath routes and sideline throws.
Clemson was held to just 15 yards in the second half. The Tigers tried to get another boost from freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson -- who sparked Clemson with a touchdown pass to Charone Peake early in the second quarter -- with 3:17 in the third quarter, but his third-down pass sailed long and forced Clemson to punt. Georgia dominated special teams all day, pinning Clemson deep into its own territory and forcing each offensive play to carry a bit more weight.
“We just literally could not get the field position flipped,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We talk a lot about the game within the game, and you cannot keep giving a good offense the ball in great field like we did.”
Last year’s Georgia-Clemson game was one of the best nonconference matchups of the season, and the fireworks carried into 2014 even without stars like Aaron Murray, Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant. In the playoff system, nonconference battles will take on significantly more emphasis, going from kickoff classics to critical bullet points on a team’s résumé. Clemson will likely be a Top 25 team by season’s end, so Georgia's win could set the tone for things to come.
“Right now we’re on cloud nine,” Andrews said. “I know we’re all excited, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”