Todd Gurley led the way in the 2014 season opener as the Bulldogs knocked off the Tigers 45-21, avenging last year's 38-35 Clemson win.
Gurley, a junior tailback, finished with 15 carries for 198 yards and had touchdowns on runs of 23, 18 and 51 yards. He also returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.
Gurley had just four carries in the first half, although he did have the kickoff return in the second quarter. He managed 44 yards in the first half but then was the star of the game after halftime.
He had 11 carries in the third and fourth quarters and gained 154 yards as he averaged more than 13 yards per attempt for the game. The Tigers simply had no answer for him, and Georgia’s game plan worked to perfection.
The Bulldogs didn’t overload him with carries and wear him down in the first half. Instead, Mike Bobo’s plan to save Gurley for the second half was the difference in the game, and that will set off the Gurley-for-Heisman campaign.
PRUITT DOES IT AGAIN: Chad Morris likely will be happy that a Jeremy Pruitt defense won’t be on Clemson’s schedule for a while. Last year, Pruitt’s Florida State Seminoles dismantled the Tigers in a laugher at Memorial Stadium.
After a strong first half by the Tigers’ offense Saturday, Georgia’s defense totally shut down the Clemson attack. The ground game that coaches talked about throughout the preseason never materialized, and Cole Stoudt couldn’t find any open receivers, mainly because he had little time to do so. Clemson’s offensive line was pushed around throughout the second half by the Bulldogs’ front, and that kept Stoudt from being able to take advantage of Georgia’s questionable secondary.
The few times the senior quarterback did have time in the second half, he looked nervous in the pocket and struggled when he had open receivers.
In the first half, Clemson was 7-of-13 converting third-down tries, and the offense was flying high. But the Georgia defensive staff made adjustments at halftime with its pressure, and Clemson’s staff and players didn’t respond. The Tigers were 0-of-7 in the second half on third-down tries, and most of them were of the long-distance variety.
After 276 yards in the first half, Clemson had just 14 yards in the second half. Yep, FOURTEEN.
In short, Pruitt and his staff outcoached Morris and his staff for the second straight season, and there’s no way anyone can argue that.
SPECIAL TEAMS WOES: Outside of Chandler Catanzaro, Clemson’s special teams have been average, at best, for several seasons, and that trend continued Saturday night. And it played a big factor in Georgia’s second-half dominance.
Clemson’s return teams were terrible and couldn’t offset Gurley’s touchdown return. The Tigers’ coverage teams were, again, average, and Georgia continued to take advantage of a short field in the second half.
A key point came late in the first half as Clemson was driving and appeared to be in control of the game, dominating time of possession and keeping control of the ball throughout the first two quarters. The Tigers had to settle for a field goal try by Ammon Lakip, but he shanked the 34-yard field try, and it wasn’t even close.
Instead of leading 24-21 going into the half, the game was tied, and Georgia took the opening drive of the second half and went straight down the field for a field goal from Marshall Morgan.
And the rout was on.
WHERE WAS THE DOMINANT D? Clemson’s defense was pretty good, not great, but pretty good throughout the first half, even though the game was tied at the break. Take away Gurley’s kickoff return, and the Tigers gave up 14 points in the first two quarters. And the Clemson defense looked solid in that time.
But in the second half, the Clemson defense imploded with terrible tackling and awful angles against the Bulldogs’ rushing attack. The defensive front that was supposed to control Georgia’s offensive line managed one sack.
Georgia’s line that was a huge question mark going into the season with several new starters held its own against the Clemson pass rush in the first half, and then the Bulldogs’ line dominated in the second half.
Clemson’s linebackers really struggled tackling Georgia’s physical backs, and the Tigers’ didn’t help themselves with some undisciplined play and bad fundamentals.
To be fair, the defense was on the field way too much in the second half because of the atrocious play by the offense. But after a preseason filled with talk of a dominant defense, the Tigers allowed 459 yards, including 328 rushing. Let that sink in for a minute.
“Dominant” defenses don’t allow 328 yards rushing in a single game.
BOUNCING BACK: The Tigers are staring a 1-2 start directly in the face. The team that played Saturday night will want no part of Florida State in three weeks after facing South Carolina State next week in the home opener. It’s a long season, and Saturday’s game certainly doesn’t end Clemson’s chances of playing for an ACC title.
But the Tigers have a lot of questions after the opener.
Can Stoudt really be the guy at quarterback? He was 15-of-28 for 130 yards passing, and that’s simply not good enough in a big game. There were some drops, and the offensive line was exposed in the second half, but he also missed some plays in key spots Fans are going to call for Deshaun Watson, and he looked good in the first half, but he also missed a wide-open receiver on a key third down in the second half.
Can the running game develop? The by-the-committee approach appears to be the plan for this season, but 44 carries for 102 yards, again, isn’t good enough. That starts with an offensive line that wasn’t good at all in the second half. But the Tigers’ coaches need to find a go-to back at some point this season.
Where were the tight ends? Stanton Seckinger and Jay Jay McCullough each had one catch, and Jordan Leggett didn’t catch a ball. We heard about Stoudt’s relationship with Leggett and how that was going to be a key to the offensive. But Leggett was nowhere to be found.
Where are the weapons on the outside? Mike Williams had three catches, but he dropped two more key passes in the first half that stopped a drive. Adam Humphries led the team with five catches, but those went for all of 11 yards. Yep ELEVEN.
Is this defense going to be as good as advertised? That unit was all the rage in the preseason, but there are a lot of questions coming out of this game. Was it overrated? Was this just a one-time thing? Can that supposed explosive defensive front match up against a physical offensive line? Those questions have to be answered.
This is a veteran team, and there is plenty of time to respond to yet another blowout loss on a big-time stage (Florida State and South Carolina the past two years).
But there are a ton of questions about this team after Saturday’s second half. All the optimism and good feelings that were there after a pretty solid first half, disappeared into the Athens night after the Bulldogs’ second-half dominance and the Tigers’ full-team collapse.
Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., and co-host of The Morning Show on FoxSports 1670 AM. Follow him on Twitter at @DM_Shirley and read his blog at macon.com/peachsports.
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