Gurley dazzles as No. 12 Georgia rushes past No. 16 Clemson

ATHENS — There was a noticeable uniform absent from the Georgia Bulldogs’ traditional leap into the Sanford Stadium hedges and student section following the program’s slow-developing rout of rival Clemson in its season opener: GURLEY II, No. 3.

The Bulldogs’ junior running back was a little preoccupied. It was a busy night. After setting school records and running roughshod over a defense that features one of the most talented defensive lines in the country, he had some explaining to do.

"I just go out there and just play. And stuff happens," Gurley said, almost sheepishly. "I expect it to happen, but not like it does sometimes."

Once Gurley finished with on-field interviews under the bright lights, the hedge-jumping was over, his teammates already laughing their way to the locker room, so instead he found his offensive linemen, David Andrews and Kolton Houston. He brought both in for a bear hug. He had some thanking to do as well. Gurley’s path to 198 rushing yards and four total touchdowns was, at least in some part, paved by the big boys up front, but keep one thing in mind: Todd Gurley’s season-opening performance belongs first and foremost to Todd Gurley.

The third-year starter on Georgia’s offense turned in the most impressive performance of his career on Saturday night, setting a school record with 293 all-purpose yards en route to scoring three rushing touchdowns and a 100-yard kickoff return for a score. In doing so, Gurley solidified his place among the early, early Heisman Trophy favorites. If there was a more dominant Week 1 performance in college football, good luck finding it, judging by the rave reviews Gurley received in the runaway’s aftermath.

"I think he’s the best player in America, or at least one of them," Georgia coach Mark Richt said.

"I can’t say I’ve seen a better football player in college football in a long time," Andrews said. "He’s just got a way of taking over the game."

Yes, there’s more:

"Todd Gurley is obviously as good as it gets," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.

Added Georgia’s first-year starting quarterback Hutson Mason: "Todd’s Todd. He makes it easy for us."

Gurley finished the night averaging 13.2 yards per carry from the line of scrimmage, receiving 15 carries, many of them coming in the second half as Georgia poured it on the Tigers. He became the first player since former UCLA star Maurice Drew in 2005 to put up three rushing touchdowns and an additional return score against a ranked opponent. These performances do not come along very often. When he’s healthy — and that hasn’t always been the case — he can reach an entirely different level.

And with Gurley leading the way, Georgia, which out-rushed Clemson by 240 yards, has a strong case for the most impressive stable of running backs in the country. And yes, that statement takes into consideration that juggernaut over in Tuscaloosa.

On the strength of recent backfield recruiting coups, Georgia features three former five- or four-star prospects in Keith Marshall, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb. High school superstars. Potential game-changers at the collegiate and, possibly, NFL level. Each player, despite Marshall’s solid track record to date (1,013 yards and nine touchdowns on 179 career carries) and flashes of huge potential from freshmen Michel and Chubb, comes off the bench in coordinator Mike Bobo’s offense. That’s because of Gurley, a former four-star prospect himself.

That’s not to say the Marshall-Michel-Chubb trio didn’t produce, because there were plenty of rushing-related highlights to go around.

Those three other backs combined for 111 yards, one touchdown and enough broken tackles to leave the Tigers, whose defense was meant to be a strength in 2014, grasping for answers.

"We just didn’t tackle. The aim of the defense is to get the guy on the ground," Clemson tackle Grady Jarrett said. "It’s fixable, but we knew what we were getting coming into this game. They have great running backs and to be successful we had to tackle them and make the play. … We didn’t execute well enough to win this game tonight."

Jarrett may not be the last Georgia opponent to utter those words this season.

The pregame narrative surrounding the recently revived Georgia-Clemson rivalry did focus on both teams’ backfields — just not on the running backs.

Sure, Clemson was looking for answers at the position after losing top returning rusher Zac Brooks to a season-ending injury during camp. And sure, the Bulldogs boasted the aforementioned talent and weren’t exactly sneaking up anyone with those names. That was all important.

But in a quarterback-driven sport, both the Tigers and Bulldogs watched as their record-breaking senior starters exhausted their eligibility in 2013, exiting their respective schools on the short list of the most prolific signal-callers in recent memory. Clemson’s Tajh Boyd and Georgia’s Aaron Murray were mainstays on the college scene, statistical giants. This left a void, one filled with uncertainty.

Longtime backups Mason (Georgia) and Cole Stoudt (Clemson) took the big stage from the get-go for the first time on Saturday, but only one looked behind him and saw Gurley & Co. That was perhaps the biggest difference in the game.

Stoudt was spotty in his first collegiate start, leading the Tigers on two scoring drives and finishing with 168 total yards — not exactly offensive coordinator Chad Morris’s type of production. (In fact, it was five-star true freshman Deshaun Watson that dazzled in limited playing time, completing two NFL-caliber passes and his first career touchdown. Clemson’s staff will be hard-pressed not to give Watson more time in the coming weeks.)

Mason, on the other hand, was serviceable. He finished 18 for 26 passing with 131 yards, acting more as game manager than playmaker. Not that he’s too concerned about his own Heisman resume, or lack thereof.

"I don’t care if I throw for one yard and we win. When you wait around for one year, you’ve got one shot at this," the senior said. "Records aren’t on my mind. Atlanta championship, dancing in the glitter is."

During fall camp, when those glitter-filled dreams are alive and well for players at every FBS program, Gurley made sure to stay grounded. Lanes still needed to be paved. Linemen, all but excluded annually from the top postseason awards, need their own rewards.

Gurley delivered for the second year in a row: cake.

"He doesn’t let all this get to his head," Andrews said. "He knows he needs everyone, he couldn’t just do it just him."

After the line paved the way for 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns as a true freshman, he brought ice cream cake to training camp. This time around, after putting up 989 yards and 10 scores in an injury-hampered sophomore campaign? Chocolate cake. Asked for his preference, Andrews remained candid: "I like the ice cream cake last year better … but I like ice cream."

If this keeps up, there’s going to be plenty of treats to go around next training camp. Michel and Chubb do not look like freshman place-holders, they look like difference-makers.

"They were awesome. They stepped in big. At first, I knew Sony was getting in a lot and I was wondering when Chubb was going to get in. And it was just like last year when they put Brendan (Douglas) in during South Carolina week and, you know, they just finished the game off," Gurley said before being asked if the youngsters could ever match his performances on the field. "No, they’re going to be better."

It’s a solid gameplan with a new quarterback and a defense that is transitioning to a new system: drain the clock, drain the opponent.

As for Gurley’s Heisman stock, there’s no denying he’s at the forefront of the race, even if it is the first leg of the marathon. College football history is littered with September Heismans — and here it is only August — that failed to finish the season on such a high note. As Gurley himself pointed out when asked about the hype: "It’s only Week 1. We’ve got like 15 more weeks to go."

There’s also the case of splitting carries with so much talent in the backfield. Georgia’s strategy was nearly perfect on Saturday night, giving Gurley only five touches (which resulted in two touchdowns) in the first half so he was fresh enough to wear the Tigers down in the third and fourth quarters. That could cut into his overall counting numbers this season, but if it means keeping the Bulldogs’ superstar healthy from start to finish — just look how destructive he is when all is going right, running around, through and away from would-be tacklers — then it’s worth it.

Georgia might have more quality depth at the running back position than any other school in the country, and, at least for one night, that group looked good enough to help propel the Bulldogs toward Atlanta and the new four-team playoff. It’s just Week 1. Deep breaths are necessary. Still, first impressions are all college football has at the moment — and very few teams made a stronger first impression than Mark Richt’s team, particularly his backfield.

"We’ve got a plethora of guys back there," Georgia linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. "If you stop one, we’re gonna put another one in. If one gets tired, put a freshman in. We’ve got running backs for days."

Same goes for confidence.