Clemson Tigers quarterback Cole Stoudt (18) is sacked by Georgia Bulldogs linebacker Amarlo Herrera (52) and defensive tackle James DeLoach (89) during Saturday’s game at Sanford Stadium in Athens. (Staff Photo: David Welker)
ATHENS — Call it adjustments or just the effects of the late summer heat and humidity, but after a first half in which the two offenses went back and forth like a metronome, the defenses took over in the second half of Georgia’s 2014 opener against Clemson.
In the end, it was the 12th-ranked Bulldogs and Todd Gurley who refused to melt.
The junior tailback lived up to his billing as a Heisman Trophy candidate by running for 153 of his 198 yards in the second half, including two of his four touchdowns on the night, to help Georgia outlast No. 16 Clemson 45-21 before a packed house of 92,746 Saturday at Sanford Stadium.
Gurley finished his huge day with a school record 293 all-purpose yards, breaking the old mark of 290 by Rodney Hampton in 1987.
Included in that figure was a 100-yard kickoff return in the first half, which ties an NCAA record for the longest possible statistical return.
“That’s pretty doggone good to me, I guess,” Gurley understated. “It was great. I had a great camp, and I just felt good. Just to be able to go out and do what I did, I practiced for this and everything. … So, it’s awesome to be able to go out there and play my game.
“We’re definitely a team. I guess I can start it off, and (the other running backs) can finish it. We all finish it together.”
True, Gurley had plenty of help in finishing off Clemson, and not just from the other running backs who rolled up 328 yards on the ground.
The Georgia defense limited the Tigers to just 15 yards of total offense and one first down in the second half in its first outing under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
“Everybody’s just kind of on the same page,” said senior linebacker Amarlo Herrera, who led the Bulldogs with 12 tackles and two sacks. “When everybody plays with confidence, it boils. Everybody’s just playing their hardest every time.”
After being dissected for 276 total yards by the Clemson quarterback tandem of Cole Stoudt and Deshaun Watson and a solid running game, the Bulldogs tightened up in the second half.
The problem was, so did the Tigers — at least through the third quarter in which Marshall Morgan provided the only points with a 27-yard field goal just 3:33 after the second-half kickoff that broke a halftime tie and pushed Georgia in front 24-21.
But by the fourth quarter, Gurley and the Bulldogs running game finally began to grind down the Clemson defense.
“That’s the great thing about football,” said Georgia starting center and Wesleyan grad David Andrews. “You get two halves to make some adjustments. We made those adjustments and came out and gutted them. I think we ran probably the same six plays over and over and they just kept working.
“We knew once we came out in the second half and started gutting them, you could feel it after each first down they started giving in.”
On the Bulldogs’ initial possession of the final frame, the 6-foot-1, 226-pound Tarboro, N.C., native first broke off a 38-yard run to flip field position and set Georgia up at the Clemson 42-yard line.
Three snaps later, Gurley was at it again, this time bursting through the middle for his third score of the game — and 18-yard run that finally gave the Bulldogs some breathing room at 31-21 with 10:26 to play.
And he wasn’t alone in piling up ground yardage in the final frame, as freshmen Nick Chubb and Sony Michel got into the act with big runs including a 47-yard touchdown from Chubb that broke the game wide open at 38-21 with 8:53 to play.
But make no mistake, Gurley was Georgia’s big gun on the night, and punctuated his evening with a 51-yard scoring sprint that made the score 45-21 with 7:34 left and ended the competitive portion of the game.
“Well, I think he’s the best player in America, or at least one of them,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “You’ve got to have teammates to help you do it, but he’s one of the best.”
“(Saturday), the leadership rose to the occasion. Everybody was very good teammates and pulled together. I’m just real proud of everyone.”
The two teams traded momentum throughout the first half, as well as 21 points apiece.
Trailing 14-7 late in the first quarter, it looked like Clemson had seized momentum early in the second with the debut of freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson.
And after misfiring on his first pass attempt the former Gainesville star found the mark.
First, he hooked up with Mike Williams on a 29-yard completion on third and 4 to put Clemson down to the Georgia 30.
Then, he threaded the needle with a bullet to Charone Peake through two Bulldog defenders for a 30-yard scoring strike that tied the game again at 14-all with 13:52 left in the first half.
“You know, I just had to wait fo my time,” Watson said. “(Offensive coordinator Chad) Morris said, ‘Always be ready,’ so I was ready and we just executed and it just happened.”
The pendulum continued to swing Clemson’s way when Stoudt re-entered the game following a stop by the Tiger defense.
The senior guided a 10-play, 68-yard drive that culminated with C.J. Davidson diving over the top from a yard out to put the Tigers back in front again at 21-14 with 7:28 left in the half.
But it took just 14 seconds for Georgia and Gurley to respond, with the junior fielding the ensuing kickoff 5 yards deep in his own end zone, finding a seam up the middle and outracing the Clemson coverage for the touchdown at the 7:14 mark.
The score officially went for 100 yards and eventually sent the Bulldogs into halftime even at 21-apiece.
Former Grayson standout Wayne Gallman also saw action for the Tigers, running for 5 yards on his only carry and catching two passes for 17 more yards.
South Gwinnett grad Reggie Carter was also a big part of Georgia’s defensive effort with four total tackles and a pass break-up.
Georgia 45, Clemson 21
Clemson 7 14 0 0 ― 21
Georgia 14 7 3 21 ― 45
Clemson: D.J. Howard 1 run (Ammon Lakip kick), 10:46
Georgia: Todd Gurley 23 run (Marshall Morgan), 6:36
Georgia: Hutson Mason 2 run (Morgan kick), 0:35
Clemson: Charone Peake 30 pass from Deshaun Watson (Lakip kick), 13:52
Clemson: D.J. Davidson 1 run (Lakip kick), 7:28
Georgia: Todd Gurley 100 kickoff return (Morgan kick), 7:15
Georgia: Morgan 27 FG, 11:27
Georgia: Gurley 18 run (Morgan kick), 10:26
Georgia: Nick Chubb 47 run (Morgan kick), 8:53
Georgia: Gurley 51 run (Morgan kick), 7:34
First downs 15 22
Rushes-yards 44-102 41-328
Passing yards 189 131
Att.-Comp.-INT 17-32-1 18-26-0
Fumbles-lost 2-0 2-1
Penalties-yards 3-40 8-65
Rushing — Clemson: Davidson 13-66, Howard 11-28, Cole Stoudt 13-16, Wayne Gallman 1-5, Watson 5-(-3), TEAM 1-(-10). Georgia: Gurley 15-198, Chubb 4-70, Sony Michel 6-33, Qayvon Hicks 2-14, Isaiah McKenzie 1-9, Keith Marshall 6-8, TEAM 1-(-1), Mason 6- (-3).
Passing — Clemson: Stoudt 15-28-1, 130; Watson 2-4-0, 59. Georgia: Mason .
Receiving — Clemson: Adam Humphries 5-11, Mike Williams 8-88, Artavis Scott 2-41, Gallman 2-17, Peake 1-30, Davidson 1-3, Jay Jay McCullough 1-2, Stanton Seckinger 1-0, Howard 1-(-3). Georgia: Michael Bennett 5-60, Michel 3-20, Jay Rome 3-18, Chris Conley 2-14, McKenzie 2-11, Jeb Blazevich 1-9, Kenneth Towns 1-4, Gurley 1-(-5).
Attendance — 92,746