Gurley’s rousing debut overshadows Georgia’s sluggish start

semerson@macon.comSeptember 1, 2012 

ATHENS -- The goals were not grand for Todd Gurley in his college football debut. Hit the hole hard. Try not to let the first man take him down. Make a good impression.

There was also a similar approach for the Georgia football team: Get the expected win over woebegone Buffalo and leave the game with minimal injuries and minimal questions about its team.

Gurley exceeded expectations.

His team played below them.

The sixth-ranked Bulldogs did come away with a 45-23 victory in their 2012 season opener. But it was a one-possession lead at the half, and for the Bulldogs it was a shaky performance from a defense that is supposed to be the bedrock of the team.

“It wasn’t pretty. I wasn’t thrilled with the way we played,” head coach Mark Richt, proceeding to list the failures, including some on offense. “Am I concerned about it? Yeah, I mean, we better play better than that next week or we’ll be riding home sad.”

The upside for Richt is that his team might have found its tailback.

Gurley was a revelation, scoring a touchdown on his second collegiate carry, then returning a kickoff 100 yards, and adding a 55-yard touchdown run in the final quarter. He finished with 100 rushing yards on just eight carries.

“I didn’t think it would be like this,” Gurley said. “Maybe I thought I’d have a touchdown or a couple (runs) for 30 yards. But I didn’t know it’d be like this.”

Gurley and fellow North Carolina native Keith Marshall were two of the team’s top recruits this offseason. The tailback position has been a tumultuous one for the Bulldogs, but Gurley and Marshall were the team’s top two rushers Saturday, providing hope the position is settling down.

“I’ve liked his attitude since Day 1, him and Keith and Ken (Malcome),” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “They’ve just gone to work every day and competed hard, and I think he’ll continue to do that. He’s just a very humble kid.”

“He’s just a talented back,” quarterback Aaron Murray said of Gurley. “We were like, ‘Man, we didn’t know you were that fast.’ I mean, he’s a big kid and strong and a good-looking running back. But you don’t think he has the wheels he does. I mean, he can move too. He’s an all-around back, and he showed that (Saturday).”

Sophomore cornerback Malcolm Mitchell was unavailable to play with a sprained ankle, but he helped the team in another way, by giving Gurley advice before his 100-yard kickoff return, which made it 14-6 in the first quarter.

“I was talking to Malcolm Mitchell, and he told me how to hit (the hole),” Gurley said. “As soon as I got the ball, I kind of did exactly what I said. He gave me good advice.”

On the other hand, it appeared Georgia could have used Mitchell on defense -- and the group of suspended starters.

Georgia had the nation’s fifth-ranked defense last year, with nine starters returning, including two All-Americans. But one of those All-Americans, safety Bacarri Rambo, was suspended.

What was left of the defense allowed Buffalo -- which went 3-9 last year -- to put together three scoring drives in the first half, including one for 94 yards. There was even booing by the Sanford Stadium crowd.

Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham claimed not to hear it.

“I’m just worried about trying to execute, get off the field and play better defense,” he said.

Georgia had trouble doing that in the first half. Grantham also didn’t blame the struggles on the missing players. He did indicate there could be further evaluation this week on which personnel to use at Missouri.

“The guys that played, we evaluated some things in that scrimmage -- I mean, in that game -- that we’ll have to address as we move forward,” Grantham said.

Strangely, while no defensive linemen were out, Georgia still had some trouble in run defense and couldn’t get a lot of pressure on the quarterback. It had just two sacks.

“We won, but we can’t play like that next week in that hostile environment,” Georgia sophomore cornerback Damian Swann said. “I think that we’ll use this week to get better for Missouri.”

Georgia’s offense wasn’t perfect, either. The passing game saw some hiccups, with Murray missing some sure touchdown passes and the offensive line yielding three sacks.

But Murray did manage to hook up with Tavarres King (63-yard touchdown) and Rantavious Wooten (38-yard touchdown).

Special teams, a big problem for the Bulldogs last year, was also a success Saturday. Besides Gurley’s return, freshman Marshall Morgan was 1-for-2 on field goals but outstanding on kickoffs.

So the freshmen, by and large, held up their end in the opener. When it comes to the SEC opener, Georgia is aiming for better performances from its quarterback and defense, the two main reasons it started the year with high hopes.

“I guess everyone’s expectations were this was supposed to be a little bit of a cakewalk,” Georgia senior defensive end Abry Jones said. “We’ll definitely look back on this game and say the season’s not gonna be easy. So we’ve gotta keep working to where we wanna go.”

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