ATHENS, Ga. — Todd Gurley felt strong and healthy.
Boy, did it show.
In a performance that will surely cast him as an early favorite for the Heisman Trophy, Gurley scored four touchdowns and set a school record with 293 all-purpose yards, leading No. 12 Georgia to a 45-21 victory over No. 16 Clemson on Saturday night.
"I think he’s the best player in America," Georgia coach Mark Richt said, "or at least one of them."
Gurley ran for 198 yards and three touchdowns. He returned a kickoff 100 yards for another score. He made the most of his limited touches on a sweltering night between the hedges, averaging 17.2 yards every time he got his hands on the ball and breaking Rodney Hampton’s mark of 290 all-purpose yards, set in 1987.
"Hopefully I can get better," Gurley said. "I don’t want to stay the same every week. That’s not a good thing."
The junior running back is looking to shine after an injury-plagued sophomore campaign. He sustained a quadriceps injury that limited his carries in a season-opening loss to Clemson; later in the year, a sprained ankle caused him to miss three games and left him just shy of 1,000 yards rushing.
There was nothing to fret about at the start of 2014.
"Having those nagging leg injuries, man, that holds you back," Gurley said. "I didn’t have those tonight. It’s always good to start the season off healthy."
Georgia broke open a game that was tied 21-all at halftime, shutting down Clemson and a fast-break offense that didn’t look nearly as effective without two of its departed stars, record-setting quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins. The Tigers were held to one first down and 15 yards in the second half.
"We’ve got to prepare harder and get better," said Cole Stoudt, Clemson’s new quarterback. "I’ve got to keep improving myself and get better."
Hutson Mason turned in a nondescript performance in the first game of his only full season as Georgia’s starting quarterback. The fifth-year senior, an understudy to Aaron Murray throughout his career, completed 18-of-26 for 131 yards and didn’t do much damage downfield without speedy receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley.
It didn’t really matter. Gurley pretty much finished off Clemson by himself.
He got rolling with a 23-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. Then he electrified the crowd of more than 92,000 by taking a kickoff at the goal line, bursting through a gap straight up the middle of the field, and leaving everyone in his wake with a stunning display of speed.
Mindful of Gurley’s injuries last season and not wanting to tire him out in the humid conditions, Georgia limited him to four carries, one pass reception (for a 5-yard loss) and that dynamic kickoff return in the first half.
The strategy paid off over the final two quarters.
Gurley just kept right on running like he wasn’t even tired, while Clemson found it increasingly difficult to bring him down. In the final period, he pushed Georgia to a 31-21 lead with an 18-yard touchdown run, breaking a tackle at the line and cutting to his left to reach the end zone without being touched again.
Then, picking his way through a hole with a hand on the back of a lineman, Gurley suddenly broke free down the right sideline on his 15th, and final, carry of the night for 51-yard touchdown that turned a game that was close most of the way into a blowout.
"Gurley was obviously as good as it gets," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "Gurley, and all their backs, were special tonight."
Indeed, Georgia showed stunning depth in the backfield, also giving extensive playing time to Keith Marshall, coming back from a knee injury, and freshmen Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.
Grubb also scored in the fourth quarter on a 47-yard run that looked downright Gurley-esque, breaking tackles and pulling away from the secondary with a burst down the sidelines. He had 70 yards on four carries. Michel turned in 33 yards on six carries as the Bulldogs piled up 328 rushing yards on a defense that was supposed to be the Tigers’ strength, returning most of its front seven from last season.
Stoudt was just 15 of 28 for 130 yards with an interception, which will surely lead to calls for the Tigers to give more playing time to touted freshman Deshaun Watson. In limited snaps, he guided the Tigers to a touchdown with a 30-yard pass to Charone Peake.
"It’s never as bad as it may seem," Swinney said. "For us, the season starts tomorrow."