ATHENS – The crowd around Todd Gurley had finally receded enough that he could steal a look behind him and see the slogan written on the board: “Legs feed the wolf.”
“I have no idea what it means,” Gurley said.
It was a quote from the movie “Miracle,” and was meant as inspiration for Georgia’s tight ends. But it was hard not to connect it to what Gurley had just done to lead No. 12 Georgia to a 45-21 season-opening win over No. 16 Clemson.
Gurley set a school record with 293 total yards, and had a career-high 198 rushing yards. He had four touchdowns, using fresh legs in the fourth quarter to run over a gassed Clemson defense.
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“I think he’s the best player in America,” Georgia head coach Mark Richt said. “Or at least one of them. You’ve gotta have teammates that help you do it. But he’s one of the best in America.”
That might have been enough for Georgia. But on top of it the Bulldogs revamped defense, shaky in the first, was suddenly dominant. Throw in a surprisingly helpful special teams – again, propelled by Gurley – and No. 12 Georgia ran away in a game that was tied at halftime.
Dominant does not fairly describe what Georgia did to Clemson in the second half. The total yards: Georgia 346, Clemson 15.
“This is one of those feelings we’ve been missing for awhile,” senior cornerback Damian Swann said. “And I think we’re getting back to the point where we’re playing the Georgia football we wanna play.”
And so Georgia finally earned a marquee win to open its season. It lost at Clemson to begin last year, fell to Boise State three years ago and at Oklahoma State two years before that.
Now the Bulldogs will enter South Carolina after a bye week with a 1-0 record, and riding an impressive opening win.
“We’ve kind of started the season with really slow starts in the past,” senior receiver Michael Bennett said. “Just to get a huge win against a really good team kind of shows the nation that we’re here, and we’re legit. It means so much to us.”
This game had drama for three quarters. Clemson struck first, and led 21-14 after two straight touchdowns in the second quarter. Georgia’s defense looked too much like last year, and Gurley had just four carries in the first half.
Actually, it was part of a plan by the Georgia coaches. But even they couldn’t know how spectacularly well it would work out.
Gurley first tied the game with a 100-yard kickoff return in the second quarter. Richt now regrets not keeping Gurley on kick return, where he was early in his freshman year before they decided not to risk him on special teams.
“We cheesed up. We decided, 'Well we can’t put him back there because something may happen or something like that,' ” Richt said. “This year I was like, 'We’re putting our best players on special teams.' ”
When the second half rolled around, the restraints came off Gurley. It was a three-point game early in the fourth quarter when he scored on an 18-yard touchdown. One drive later, freshman Nick Chubb uncorked a 47-yard touchdown. Then, for good measure, Gurley ran for 51 yards.
Gurley was still rolling in the heat and humidity, while Clemson’s respected defense seemed to be on fumes.
“We wanted to keep everyone fresh,” Richt said. “Todd, we didn’t use him up in the first half, and he had some juice left.”
“That’s when I get my second wind, and that’s when I actually kind of want the ball even more,” Gurley said.
Georgia’s run game overall was dominant, with Chubb and fellow freshman Sony Michel combining for 103 yards on 10 carries. And just as important, as it turned out, was the play of a resurgent defense.
Clemson had just one first down in the second half. Georgia’s secondary, the weakness of the team last year, recovered from a first half when it gave up some long passes, while the front seven dominated, applying constant pressure in the final 30 minutes.
“We, just like everybody else, expect that man (Gurley) to do a lot. And he comes through every time,” Swann said. “And to be a defensive guy, what we want to do is go out on the field and get him as many touches as we can. Number 3 is the reason we’re gonna be successful.”