Selecting our first Georgia player and coach of the game was a no-brainer when it came to the outstanding player of the Bulldogs’ explosive 45-21 season-opening win over Clemson Saturday night at a boisterous and rocking Sanford Stadium.
But as for the coach, not so easy.
All-America and Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley, despite inexplicably touching the ball only five times in the first half and scoring touchdowns on a 23-yard run and a dazzling 100-yard kickoff return, literally ran the Tigers into the ground the final two quarters when he carry 11 more times from scrimmage and added two more scores on runs of 18 and 51 yards.
For the night, the 226-pound junior totaled 198 yards rushing on 15 carries with the three touchdowns and the length-of-the field kickoff return, one which brought back memories of his nearly identical kickoff return as a freshman.
“He’s the best player in America, at least one of them,” said Gurley’s head coach Mark Richt. Noting that Gurley had only four trips from scrimmage the first two quarters, Richt said due to the heat, the game plan called for liberal substitution everywhere, including the running back spots. “We didn’t use Todd up in the first half. We felt like if we don’t substitute, he wouldn’t have been as fresh at the end of the game.
You look at his yards after contact,” said Richt. “We blocked pretty well but Todd just blasted through there. I bet you he and Chubb (freshman Nick who ran for 70 yards in only four carries including a 47-yard TD jaunt when he resembled Herschel Walker by breaking one tackle after another) had over 200 yards after contact. They (Tiger defenders) just couldn’t get them to the ground.”
On his 100-yard dash to the end zone in the second quarter, a run that enabled the Bulldogs to pull back within a 21-21 tie with the Tigers at halftime, Gurley took the ball several yards deep in his own end zone and split the middle of the field, outrunning all the Tiger defenders to the goal line.
“You know, Coach Ball and Coach Lilly had a great game plan and we knew that we would have the middle of the field open,” said Gurley. “I just had to get there and get through the hole. Luckily I was able to do that and I just kept running.
“At the beginning of the game, that was probably one of their (Tigers) game plans, to stop the run,” Gurley pointed out. “They had eight or nine guys down in the box and we had to kind of open up the passing game a little bit and eventually I felt like we started to wear them down and we kept running the ball. Coaches said, with the heat, they were going to rotate guys in and out to keep them fresh.”
So, No. 3, Todd Gurley is far and away our player of the game for opening night.
Now, back to that coaching thing.
After the contest sat in a 21-21 deadlock at the intermission, the defense that the entire Bulldawg Nation has been waiting to see under new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt finally reared its beautiful head over the last two quarters. Attacking the Clemson offense up the middle, on the perimeter and everywhere else, the Georgia defense not only shut out the Tigers over the last two periods but, also, held Clemson to one measly additional first down. Continually blowing through the Tiger offensive front to sack quarterbacks Cole Stoudt and freshman Deshaun Watson, the Bulldogs checked the visitors to zero net yards rushing over the third and fourth periods and a total of just 102 for the game.
Senior linebacker Amarlo Herrera was one of the ringleaders with 12 total tackles and two sacks and outside ‘backer Leonard Floyd also recorded two sacks while defensive end Josh Dawson added one. But it was clearly Pruitt that masterminded this sparkling second half defensive gem with his adjustments at the break.
“Coach Pruitt just told us to keep fighting, keep playing,” said Herrera. “We didn’t really make major adjustments, we just came in and regrouped and then came back and got after them.”
But, clearly, sharing coach of the game honors with Pruitt is Mike Bobo. After the offense sputtered a good bit against the Tigers’ defensive front in the first half, Bobo’s unit put 24 points on the Sanford Stadium scoreboard in the final two quarters with 21 of that total coming in an explosive fourth quarter.
With Bobo putting the ball back in Gurley’s hands, and Nick Chubb’s and Sony Michel’s too, the Bulldogs pounded the rock like Vince Dooley’s offenses of old. Indeed, after showing a measly 45 yards on 12 carries in the first half, the Bulldogs finished the night with a whopping 328 yards on 41 carries.
Most assuredly, the combined coaching efforts of Pruitt and Bobo in the second half Saturday night – and neither were around for post-game interviews – were the primary reason these Bulldogs can relish a major spanking of the Tigers on opening night and now enjoy an open date before heading for Columbia, S.C. on Sept. 13 to face a wounded and backs-to-the-wall Gamecock bunch.