ATHENS, Ga. — It wasn’t always artful or well executed or something that will make poll voters conclude, “Yeah, that looked like the sixth-best football team in the nation.”
But Georgia football fans left Sanford Stadium during and after Saturday’s uninspiring opening 45-23 victory over Buffalo muttering two exclamatory words that will linger.
They weren’t “We won!” or “What defense?” or “Too hot!”
It was “Todd Gurley!”
“Todd is going to be special, as y’all could see,” Bulldogs linebacker Jarvis Jones said. “He works hard, he believes in himself and he’s got that swagger in him. I can’t wait to see him keep progressing.”
Everything about Georgia’s performance needs to progress before next week’s Southeastern Conference opener at Missouri, but Gurley’s debut was definitely not an area of concern. Eight carries for 100 yards, power rushing touchdowns of 9 and 55 yards and a 100-yard kickoff return will go a long well to building a true freshman’s reputation.
“He averaged about what he averaged every scrimmage – about 12.5 yards a carry,” head coach Mark Richt said. “Hope that’s a trend. Wouldn’t be betting on that for the rest of his career. Everybody got a chance to see what we’ve see in some of these scrimmages. Todd has some tackle-breaking abilities and some sped for a big man. That kickoff return was a thing of beauty.”
Georgia got the victory it paid Buffalo $975,000 to guarantee, but the revelation of a new tailback superstar in the eyes of Bulldog Nation is priceless.
The fully developed freshman from Tarboro, N.C. – who was the bonus gift in the Tarheel recruiting combo package with five-star running back Keith Marshall – announced his presence with almost perfect pitch among the 12 true freshmen who played Saturday.
The whispers all preseason coming out of the Bulldogs’ camp were that Gurley was the real deal – the guy who would make Georgia fans forget about the unceremonious dismissal of last year’s SEC freshman of the year Isaiah Crowell.
On his first carry of the game, all he did was run into the line for 1 yard. Big deal.
On his second carry, he burst through a hole on the left and shed a Buffalo tackler for a 9-yard touchdown.
On his third touch, Gurley ripped his longest career kickoff return touchdown – “Nobody in high school could kick it that far,” he said – tip-toeing and high-stepping between the Bulls’ sideline and a few would-be arm tackles.
Two out of three ain’t bad.
“That electrified the fans and it electrified me, too,” said Richt.
Before Marshall even made it to the field to start his own 10-carry, 51-yard day, Gurley had become a Twitter trend and the object of adulation. A semi-panic set in when Gurley limped to the locker room after emerging from a celebration dog pile in the end zone, though all he needed was an IV to settle some cramps.
“That’s what we signed up for as college football players playing for a top program,” Gurley said of the attention. “Guess we’re going to have to get used to it and handle it in the right way.”
Gurley added a 55-yard touchdown romp in the fourth quarter behind the second-team offensive line, entertaining the hundreds of fans who remained melted into their bleacher seats.
“He obviously had a great game and I did some things well, too,” said Marshall. “So I hope we impressed the fans.”
Said Murray: “A quarterback’s best friend is a good running game and our running game was great today. We’ve been talking them up every time we get a chance. Keith and Todd are very talented. ... Running Back U. is looking very promising for the next three or four years for Georgia.”
Not everything Georgia did Saturday was as impressive, most notably the defense. Sure it was missing five key starters to suspension or injury, but that was no excuse to give up 243 yards in the first half to Buffalo. If not for Gurley’s kickoff return and a blocked punt that set up a field goal, the No. 6 Bulldogs would have been losing to the Bulls at halftime.
“The whipped us pretty much offensively in the first half – yards, time of possession, everything,” said Richt. “If it wasn’t for special teams, we’re losing.”
Georgia ranked fifth nationally in total defense last season, but it was getting pushed around by Buffalo, which drove 96 yards for one touchdown and 47 yards to Georgia’s 1 before having to settle for a field goal two seconds before the half.
What did the not-so-mild-mannered defensive coordinator Todd Grantham have to say at halftime?
“Play better,” Grantham said.
Was it delivered that matter-of-factly?
“Not really. No,” he admitted. “I don’t think you can say all the things I said. There were some adjectives in there.”
To their credit, the Bulldogs responded to the message. Whether it was entirely Georgia’s adjustments or the general malaise brought on by the oppressive heat and humidity, the Bulls got only one first down until its final drive against the Bulldogs’ reserves.
“The guys that played in the first half played much better in the third quarter and the first part of the fourth quarter,” said Grantham. “So that tells me they understood the adjustments. So that was a positive.”
“We need to start like that,” said defensive end Cornelius Washington from Burke County.
All those first-game flaws tend to get explained away after a victory as a growing process. But the first impressions by a pair of touted tailbacks will stick in everyone’s minds.
“Fans accepted both of us and knew what we were capable of and we kind of showed them today,” Gurley said. “We came here to step up.”
That they did.