If you did not know it before, Georgia’s season-opening victory against Clemson on Saturday at Sanford Stadium should confirm a couple of things for you:
First, one player can be a difference-maker in college football.
Second, field position is vital to a team’s success, or in Clemson’s case, detriment.
Todd Gurley was a one-man wrecking crew for Georgia. A preseason candidate to win the Heisman Trophy, Gurley’s performance likely pushed him into the lead chair. At the least, Gurley showed why he is the nation’s top running back.
This was a performance for the ages.
The 6-foot-1, 226-pound destruction machine ran through and around Clemson for 198 yards on an efficient 15 carries. He also returned a kickoff for a touchdown that was officially listed at 100 yards, but actually began 5 yards deep in the end zone. It was one of his four touchdowns.
Gurley’s 293 all-purpose yards found him a place in the Georgia record book, which is saying something for a program that has a long, storied history of outstanding running backs.
“Gurley is, obviously, as good as it gets,” said Clemson’s Dabo Swinney. “He is a great, great football player. ... Gurley was special tonight. He was special.”
Gurley will administer the same kind of licks on many opponents during what is likely his final season before heading to the NFL. But Clemson did not help its cause throughout by an inability to flip the field and change its starting field position.
Georgia’s average start was its 42-yard line. By contrast, on average, Clemson began its possessions at its 18-yard line. Georgia’s touchdown drives covered 57, 36, 82, 47 and 51 yards. Again, in contrast, Clemson’s touchdown drives went for 70, 78 and 68 yards.
“You cannot keep giving a good offense the ball in great field position like we did,” Swinney said. “It was three-and-out, three-and-out, and we just could not get any rhythm (on offense).”
That was most apparent in the second half, when Clemson not only did not score, but also managed one first down, zero rushing yards on 13 attempts and 15 passing yards.
The poor field position forced Clemson to play more conservatively than it did in the first half, when senior starting quarterback Cole Stoudt and freshman understudy Deshaun Watson had their shining moments and helped Clemson to a 21-all draw.
After halftime, Clemson could not get out of the shadow of its end zone. Of Clemson’s seven second-half possessions, six resulted in three plays and a punt. The other lasted four plays before a punt. The Tigers’ best advancement of the ball was to their 31-yard line.
“I don’t care who we play, we can’t give a team the ball at the 43-yard line the whole game,” Swinney said. “I don’t care what we’ve got on defense. That’s hard to win when you’re playing on a 100-yard field and they’re playing on a 43-yard field.”
Although the final numbers do not reflect it – Georgia’s offense had 459 yards – Clemson’s defense played fairly well for three quarters and had allowed two Georgia touchdowns. The defense probably kept Clemson in the ballgame, and the Tigers trailed 24-21 heading to the fourth quarter.
“They eventually just wore us down,” Swinney said. “You know, three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out, eventually when you’re tackling a horse like Gurley, eventually you miss a tackle.”
There was more than one missed tackle in the fourth quarter, and they were not just in pursuit of Gurley. In a span of slightly less than three minutes, Georgia rushed for three touchdowns against the gassed Clemson defense.
No one touched Gurley on his kickoff return for a touchdown in the second quarter, unless you count the blocker he nudged out of the way after bursting through Clemson’s first line of defense. On his 18-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter, Gurley bolted through the Clemson line, cut left and was never touched.
After Nick Chubb broke tackles and sprinted 47 yards for a touchdown, Gurley’s final touchdown looked similar and covered 51 yards.
“We knew we had fine backs and we knew at some point in the game that we’d have fresh legs in there and tired people trying to tackle them,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt. “And that’s what happened in the second half.”
Clemson can take solace in knowing it likely will not face a running back of Gurley’s caliber the remainder of the season. It also is unlikely the Tigers again will face the kind of field-position holes it had to dig out of throughout the game against Georgia.