ATHENS – The first time Todd Gurley touched the ball he reminded everyone what they had been missing in his absence. Never mind that the play didn’t count. It electrified a crowd that had gone to Sanford Stadium to see just that.
The final sight of Gurley on Saturday night was much worse: sitting on a cart, a hood over his head, going to the hospital for X-rays on his left knee.
In between, a game that was supposed to be about Gurley ended up being one about the entire Georgia football team, which claimed a resounding 34-7 victory over ninth-ranked Auburn.
It was an important win for Georgia, one that eventually could mean an SEC East championship. That’s now up to first-place Missouri, which must lose one of its two remaining games, at Tennessee or home against Arkansas.
Head coach Mark Richt admitted that Gurley’s injury took some of the steam out of what should have been a great feeling of victory.
“Yeah it did for me, just not knowing,” Richt said. “But it was a great victory.”
And as a result Georgia, which two weeks ago was reeling after a debacle in Jacksonville, is 8-2 overall, 6-2 in the SEC and back within striking distance of the top 10.
“The (SEC) West, who is a power part of the conference, we’re 2-0 against,” Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason said.
Gurley’s injury might put a damper on the win, but the team once again showed that it could win without him Saturday.
It was another tailback, freshman Nick Chubb, who showed why Georgia’s run game didn’t suffer in Gurley’s absence the previous four games.
It was a calm and accurate quarterback, Mason, who again managed the offense and made the right passes from start to finish.
And it was a Georgia defense that was surprisingly stout. It held in check one of the best offenses in the country. A game that was expected to be a shootout was not, thanks in large part to a Bulldogs defense that only two weeks before had been the cause of Georgia’s worst defeat in two years.
“That could easily be one of the best offenses we face all year, and to limit them to seven points, that’s amazing,” Georgia senior cornerback Damian Swann said.
Auburn, which entered the game averaging 506.9 yards per game, was held to 292 yards. Georgia players contained the edges, holding Auburn’s powerful running game in check. And it pressured Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, the ex-Georgia cornerback making his return to Sanford Stadium.
“I really thought it was gonna be one of those barn-burners, come down to the last drive of the game, whoever had the ball last type of game,” Richt said. “I was kind of gearing everybody up for that, gearing everyone else up for that.
“We just didn’t know how good our defense was gonna play.
Gurley’s return to the field was the story of the night going into the game. Once a Heisman Trophy frontrunner, he missed four games due to a suspension.
The first time he touched the ball Saturday was an electric moment. He returned a kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown, seemingly tying the game at 7. But it was called back because of an illegal block.
Gurley still finished the game with 138 rushing yards and a touchdown. He left the game with 5:21 left in the fourth quarter on a play in which he did not appear to be hit hard or even at all.
Gurley sat on a training bench, getting moral support from teammates, including receivers Justin Scott-Wesley and Malcolm Mitchell. Georgia will now wait to see when it can get its star back again.
Chubb ended up stealing the show. He led Georgia with 144 rushing yards and two touchdowns and also had a couple of catches for 48 yards.
“We hurt for Todd and what’s going on with him. But Nick is continuing to get better,” receiver Chris Conley said. “And that’s scary, because he started being a pretty great back.”
Mason was steady again, passing for only 123 yards, but with no turnovers and Georgia’s first touchdown, a 6-yard slant to Mitchell that tied the game.
“Honestly they couldn’t stop us on offense,” Georgia guard Greg Pyke said. “We kept pushing it down our throats.”
And Georgia’s defense held Auburn to its fewest amount of points in the Gus Malzahn era. The previous low was 20 points at Kansas State earlier this season.
Auburn scored the game’s first points, on a drive in which it converted three third downs. It converted two of its next three third downs, as well.
But Georgia’s defense, led by outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins, firmed up and held the Tigers to just 82 yards in the second and third quarters.
When Amarlo Herrera picked off a Nick Marshall fourth-down pass with 11:25 left, that came close to sealing it. Malzahn, sensing he needed touchdowns, went for it on fourth-and-12 rather than kick a short field goal.
Georgia went 98 yards for a touchdown on the ensuing drive, finishing with Chubb’s touchdown run.
Richt was asked if the 27-point win made a statement to the rest of the country.
“I suppose,” he said. “But I think the best shot we have at making an impression is to keep winning and hopefully find ourselves in Atlanta again. I just don’t know if it’ll happen. Two more games for Missouri. But they’re playing good.”