Wiedmer: Georgia now SEC East beast

Wiedmer: Georgia now SEC East beast

August 31st, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Georgia's Todd Gurley, right, runs the ball in their game against Clemson, Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014, in Athens, Ga. Georgia won 45-21.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

ATHENS, Ga. - A bemused smile forming on his bearded face Saturday night following Georgia's 45-21 rout of Clemson, Bulldogs center David Andrews scanned running back Todd Gurley's stats: 298 all-purpose yards, a 100-yard kickoff return, four touchdowns.

A reporter asked Andrews what he thought made Gurley so special. Said the senior: "I think God gave him a little something extra."

There have been glimpses since the day he arrived on Georgia's campus three years ago, moments when it was clear to all that Gurley had the potential to do grand things with the greatest of ease, both for his Bulldogs teammates and himself.

But injuries seemed to find him as often as the end zone did. Nor did UGA's offense often build itself around him in the same way it embraced Herschel Walker's similar skills 34 years ago. Gurley was important, certainly, but not quite Plan A, at least not on a weekly basis.

But then came Saturday evening between the hedges, the Dawgs up against it, as the late, great Larry Munson might have groaned, Clemson having taken a 21-14 lead midway through the second period.

If not exactly a time to panic, it did seem a momentum swing in need of an answer. The sooner the better.

The Tigers kicked off. Gurley fielded it in the end zone, a red-and-silver cannonball fired straight and fast. If Clemson didn't exactly run away from the 226-pounder, no one in orange and white seemed terribly eager to corral him, either. Let the big Dawg eat, so to speak.

So Gurley went the distance, 100 mostly untouched yards, and Georgia was pretty much untouchable the rest of the night, turning a 21-21 halftime tie into a 24-point laugher, far easier than one would have predicted before the No. 12 Bulldogs and No. 16 Tigers squared off.

Though the Tigers play in the Atlantic Coast Conference, if there was great doubt before this season whether Georgia or South Carolina was the beast of the SEC East, that doubt is now gone, especially after Texas A&M crushed the Gamecocks on Thursday.

Playing as it did against Clemson, Georgia is at least the team to beat in the SEC East, if not the entire league. And Gurley is surely the Heisman favorite going forward, the opportunity to become the first Bulldog to win the little bronze statue since Herschel 32 years ago now squarely on his broad shoulders.

"I'm not thinking about that right now. I'm thinking about this team," Gurley said afterward with a grin. "I do know I showed a little more emotion out there than I usually have. I just knew I really wanted the ball. When I got that kickoff I just wanted to keep running. I really wanted to score there."

It neither started there nor ended there, though Clemson's confidence clearly collapsed there. Gurley already had scored from 23 yards out before the kickoff return. In the final half he would add an 18-yard TD run and a 51-yard gallop.

"Coach came up to me at one point and said, 'Do you realize you only have 10 carries?'" Gurley recalled. "I said, 'Then give me the ball more.'"

He toted it 15 times total for those 198 rushing yards. If you're scoring at home, that's a 13.2-yard average per carry. Even then, Georgia's terrifying backfield of Nick Chubb (70 yards in four carries), Sony Michel (33 yards in six carries) and Quayvon Hicks (14 yards in two carries) accounted for another 117 ground yards.

"That's the thing with us," said Chubb, who turned in a 47-yard scoring run, "We've got four or five guys back there who can score from anywhere. Now it all starts with Todd -- he's clearly No. 1 -- but we've got a lot of depth."

Added quarterback Hutson Mason: "That's what's great. We don't have to give it to Todd 28 times a game to win. We can keep him fresh for when we need him most."

The Georgia brass clearly understood how much it needed this game to begin its season. Walker stood at midfield prior to kickoff. Kevin Butler, who once booted a 60-yard game-winner against Clemson, was honored before the first period was half over. Scott Woerner, who once returned a punt 67 yards for a touchdown against the Tigers, as well as running an interception back 98 yards to set up a second TD in that epic 1980 game, was honorary captain.

Of course, the first quarter took so long to play -- 53 minutes unofficially -- that you couldn't help but wonder if the three living legends hadn't begun the period with eligibility remaining.

But at least the Bulldogs still had the lead at that point, up 14-7. By halftime, thanks to Gurley's return, it was knotted at 21. Then the fun began.

Even then, it would be difficult to say Georgia looked much like a national championship team against the Tigers except for those moments when the football found its way into Gurley's hands. But how often did Herschel's 1980 team appear worthy to wear the crown when Walker didn't possess the ball?

Exactly.

As long Gurley remains fresh, healthy and hungry, this team has a chance to fulfill whatever dreams it dreams. That doesn't mean the idea of keeping Gurley on the kickoff-return team seems an altogether prudent concept. There's a reason the NFL has considered doing away with kickoffs, and it's obviously not because they lack excitement. The injury factor is increased on such plays, though it could be argued that the 226-pound running back's size and speed make it at least as dangerous for those attempting to tackle him as it is for Gurley absorbing such collisions.

For proof of his immense impact on this game, don't focus solely on his stats or his touchdowns, hugely impressive though they were. Instead consider that with Gurley again lined up to receive the second-half kickoff, Clemson kicked it short and high, willing to give the Bulldogs the ball on UGA's 33 rather than risk a second kickoff return for points.

If such a strategy continues for Bulldogs foes going forward, UGA could begin every possession following a kickoff in the vicinity of the 30-yard line, which most coaches gladly would accept every time.

But this must also be considered, the words coming from quarterback Mason after a 24-point win against a ranked foe.

"We weren't clicking on all cylinders," he said. "A few things were off tonight in the passing game."

As if Georgia opponents need to worry themselves over a little something extra.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.