Georgia used 298 all-purpose yards from Todd Gurley and opened up a close game with touchdowns on three consecutive plays to win its rematch with Clemson 45-21.
It’s one thing to see the preseason honors for Todd Gurley. We know he’s a special player, and we’ve seen some unbelievable moments from him. It’s another to see him play an entire game as if it’s the first quarter of the 2013 Florida game. No matter what your expectations were before the game for Gurley, I can’t imagine that anyone saw that coming. Enjoy watching him this year.
But even as impressive as Gurley was, we knew – or at least anticipated – that the offense and the running game in particular would be the strength of the team. Other areas of the team were much less certain. So as awe-struck as I was by Gurley’s performance and credit him as the difference in the win, I’m especially pleased to see the role the defense and special teams had in a big win.
The defense showed us the reasons for so much preseason concern but also enough showed progress and improvement to leave us with quite a bit of hope for the future and faith in the change Jeremy Pruitt is leading. Georgia’s inexperienced secondary showed itself early on with a few missed tackles and long receptions. The defense gave up 21 points in a quarter and a half. Adjustments included a little more zone to lessen the exposure of individual members of the secondary, but the biggest difference was pressure taking its toll. Clemson initially held the Georgia pressure at bay
Likewise, Georgia was superior in just about every element of special teams. They were instrumental in creating a field position advantage. The special teams didn’t just avoid the back-breaking mistakes that cost Georgia so often last year; they made a positive difference in the outcome. It wasn’t just Gurley’s return. Coverage was solid, Morgan was automatic, and each punt return sent a little buzz of anticipation throughout the crowd. Last year at Clemson, it was a botched field goal that kept Georgia from tying the game. This year a pair of special teams plays went Georgia’s way to keep the Dawgs from facing a 24-14 halftime deficit.
Georgia’s players are going to hear a lot of good things about themselves over the next two weeks. Fans remember Tennessee 2004 or Auburn 1997 or another game where a celebrated win was followed up with a flat effort. The coaches will spend the bye week drilling in the need to keep improving and focus on the next challenge. When the division and conference titles as well as a spot in the national playoff are your goals, the next game becomes even more important than the last. Georgia will soon turn its attention to the SEC opener, but I’ll spend just a few more minutes savoring a very enjoyable win.
- The fans were outstanding. On a day where many of us were surely sapped by the oppressive weather, the crowd was involved from beginning to end. When I got to my seat about 40 minutes prior to kickoff, the student section was almost full.
- One of the things I had hoped to see this year – particularly from the defense – was the ability to overcome a setback. We saw potentially good defensive performances crumble last season after turnovers and special teams mistakes. One of Georgia’s best defensive series was its second. The defense allowed a scoring drive on Clemson’s first possession, and the Georgia defense was put right back on the field after a quick three-and-out by the Bulldog offense. Thanks to a tipped pass by Sterling Bailey, the defense was able to force a three-and-out of their own and set the offense up with good field position for Georgia’s first touchdown. Punter Collin Barber deserves a mention here – his 60-yard punt flipped the field. The Dawgs had only one turnover in the game – Michael Bennett’s questionable fumble. Again, the defense got right back to work after the setback and finished off another three-and-out with a sack. Georgia’s offense got the ball back at the Clemson 36 and scored five plays later.
- Much was made over the past few weeks about Ramik Wilson’s spot on the depth chart. Wilson ended up on the field during Clemson’s opening series and ended up, as usual, as one of Georgia’s leading tacklers. But Kimbrough and Carter showed why there was competition for playing time at inside linebacker. Carter’s speed made the difference in breaking up a deep pass down the middle. Kimbrough’s hits were nasty, and he nearly caused a fumble on a kick return.
- We were told to not pay much attention to the depth chart. For once, coaches meant it. You can examine all three levels of the defense and see play after play by guys who weren’t part of pregame introductions. There was Drew’s role in stopping the inside runs. It didn’t matter which of Wilson, Kimbrough, or Carter started – each contributed. If it was an obvious passing situation, it was Lorenzo Carter’s time. Moore and Davis were steady at safety, but there’s Mauger making several big pass breakups.
- That rotation played a big role in the outcome. As Clemson wore out, Georgia’s defenders thrived in the sweltering conditions. It also sent a message to Georgia’s defenders – if you’re prepared and put in the work, they’ll get you on the field regardless of who starts. That’s an important concept for guys like Drew who have been frustrated by position and coaching changes and who have been trying to break through on the depth chart. The defense needs these players, and knowing there’s a role for them has to be a tremendous motivator.
- Georgia’s overall conditioning was a welcome advantage. A lot of us griped when Gurley was used sparingly in the first half (on one drive in particular), but the approach paid off. Georgia’s fleet of fresh tailbacks was unstoppable. I doubt if that few carries for Gurley in the first half was the plan though.
- Mike Bobo surely must enjoy the talent he has available at the skill positions. Sony Michel’s first carry had him lined up in the slot, and he ran a jet sweep. Georgia then ran the same play with a freshman receiver, Isaiah McKenzie. We saw two tailbacks in at once. We saw a four wide set. But the most effective formation of the day was the one we saw on the decisive fourth quarter sweeps – a tight end, fullback, and an H-back in motion combined with a pulling offensive line to pave the way for Gurley and Chubb.
- As impressive as the tailbacks were, they got some outstanding blocking. How cool was it to see David Andrews busting his tail to help Chubb finish his scoring run? We thought the preseason focus on the fullback spot was a little overdone because of how much Georgia used one-back sets a year ago, but everyone watching knows the name Taylor Maxey now.
- Run blocking predictably improved as Clemson wore down. Pass blocking was a little more of a mixed bag. Georgia’s plan used short, quick passes to counter Clemson’s speed up front, and it more or less worked. There was a sack, but there weren’t the costly breakdowns that helped to swing last season’s game.
- Hutson Mason won’t get many glowing reviews for his first home start, but he won’t receive much condemnation. People are using the dreaded “manager” label to describe his performance, but he completed nearly 70% of his passes and didn’t turn the ball over. The short nature of the passing game shows in the 5 yards per attempt – about half of what we had in Murray’s best outings. The Dawgs didn’t get much downfield though they did draw a few interference penalties. Whether or not Georgia needed to be better throwing downfield is easy to say in hindsight. This was still a close game entering the fourth quarter, and both offenses went stagnant during the third quarter.
- If there’s one area where Mason still can improve, it’s trusting his protection. After the Tech game last season Mason admitted to being a little too quick to give up on plays. I think we saw a little of that tendency against Clemson. The protection wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t as bad as some of the hurried throws made it look.
- Finally, only a performance like Gurley’s could overshadow how well Floyd and Herrera played. As with Gurley, you’d better enjoy Floyd this year while we have him. (Seeing Floyd, Jenkins, and Lorenzo Carter overloaded on the same side of the line has to make any quarterback nervous.) Herrera was left off some of the preseason lists that featured his teammates, and he responded with one of the best games of his career. If the same motivation can fuel him for the next 11+ games, he’ll be on plenty of postseason lists.
Lots to work on for both offense and defense, but it was a much better start across the board this year. The next game is even bigger as it counts in the conference standings. We’ll be on the road in a stadium where Georgia hasn’t posted three touchdowns in a game in 20 years. On Georgia’s last trip to Columbia, Gurley was held to 39 yards. To build on this big win over Clemson, Georgia has two weeks to figure out how to do some things they haven’t done in years.