Georgia’s short fields made for Clemson’s long night.
On average, the 12-ranked Bulldogs’ drives started on their own 43. By comparison 16th-ranked Clemson’s drives started on its 19. With the offensive juice Georgia possesses, the Bulldogs didn’t need any help.
Tailback Todd Gurley scored four touchdowns, including a 100-yard kickoff return and rushed for 198 yards. Not only did Clemson fail to score in the second half, the Tigers converted a single first down in the last 30 minutes. That made for a 45-21 blowout at Sanford Stadium.
This was actually a three-point game with 11 minutes left before the wear-and-tear on Clemson’s defense hit the breaking point. Gurley scored two of his four touchdowns the rest of the way, and one of his backups, Nick Chubb, added a 47-yard score.
Of the kickoff return, Gurley said, “We knew that we would have the middle of the field open. I just had to get there and get through the hole.”
“You can’t let him run down-hill like that,” Clemson defensive lineman Vic Beasley said of the 6-1, 226-pound Gurley, who grew up in Tarboro. “They’re great. We knew they were going to run the football, and they did.”
Clemson’s offense has been great under coordinator Chad Morris and dominated here in yardage gained in the first half (276-113). But the Tigers couldn’t move the ball at all after halftime. They finished with a net 15 yards in the second half, when senior quarterback Cole Stoudt was sacked twice .
“We couldn’t get off the goal line and find someplace to huddle,” Morris acknowledged. “Maybe we were a little conservative (in the play-calling), but it was with some very young guys.”
Morris said the game plan going in was to lean heavily toward the run to minimize pressure on Stoudt and his freshman backup, Deshaun Watson. Those two had some success in the first half, particularly Watson’s 30-yard dart between two defensive backs to Charone Peake for a touchdown.
The score was tied at 21-21 at halftime. The Tigers missed some chances, dropping passes early and missing what would have been a go-ahead field goal shortly before halftime. But none of that portended a second half in which Georgia out-gained Clemson 346-15.
Morris said he was of two minds, looking to avoid a crucial turnover, yet hoping to convert at least one first down each possession to create some momentum.
“You try not to put yourself in a bind and give them something,” Morris said. “We never could got that extra first down.”
Stoudt (15-of-28 for 130 yards, no touchdowns and one interception) couldn’t pinpoint what changed after halftime.
“They made a few adjustments, but nothing too drastic,” said Stoudt. “Then we got stuck in something, and we couldn’t dig out of it.”
Morris said that while Watson is Clemson’s future at the position, “Cole is our starting quarterback.”
This was Clemson’s first season-opening loss since Dabo Swinney took over as head coach. He didn’t like what he saw Saturday, but he understood it:
“Three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out – that’s going to catch up to you when you’re trying to tackle a horse like Gurley.”