Like Gaul, last night’s opener was divided into three parts: a first half that was marked by huge momentum swings, a third quarter of trench warfare and a fourth quarter that may very well have been the most dominant one of Mark Richt’s head coaching career. In the end, it added up to a decisive 24-point win that leaves the team and the fan base in the same emotional place it was in after last September’s win over LSU. We’ll have to wait and see if the rest of the story turns out happier than last year’s, but in the meantime, there is plenty to savor from what I saw last night.
Cue the bullet points.
- The crowd came ready to play from the get-go. Maybe it was the improved wi-fi access. But in any event, Clemson had to use two timeouts because of crowd noise.
- Admittedly, Todd Gurley makes it easy to keep the energy level up. The place went simply out of its collective mind after his touchdown return. It’s incredible to realize that he rushed for almost 200 yards with the Clemson defense keying on him. All I can say is that I’ve lost control over Todd Gurley superlatives.
- My two biggest plays of the game are probably different from most. Collin Barber’s first punt of sixty yards, combined with a very poor decision to attempt a return, flipped the field to the Clemson nine and started a run that lasted throughout most of the game of the Tigers losing the field position battle. And while Gurley’s touchdown runs were all spectacular, it was his 38-yarder that preceded his third touchdown of the day that showed the offensive line was finally stepping up to control Clemson’s front seven. That’s when the physical dominance kicked in.
- Do not underestimate how big a deal the field position battle was last night.
- Much will be made of Pruitt’s halftime adjustments, and deservedly so. Two in particular had the biggest impact: a decision to play less man coverage in the secondary, which seemed to allow better safety support to slow down those quick passes to the sideline that gave the defense fits in the first half; and a steady dose of Ray Drew on first and second downs, which made the Clemson running game up the middle noticeably less effective.
- Leonard Floyd is a bad mother.
- I thought the replay official blew the call on the Bennett fumble, which fortunately didn’t cost Georgia. But I thought he got the call reversing the fumble on the Clemson kickoff return correct.
- In so many ways, you never would have seen that Aaron Davis interception last season. And I honestly can’t remember the last time I witnessed a Georgia secondary that was so successful at knocking balls out of receivers’ hands.
- While I thought I detected a panicky hand wave early on (and that may have been force of habit on my part), I couldn’t help but be impressed at how under control the defensive signalling was in the second half. Truly a joy to behold.
- I guess there was something to the happy talk about conditioning this time.
- While there was plenty of impressive defensive performances last night – Herrera may have turned in the best game of his career – there are three I really want to acknowledge. Pruitt’s best coaching job may have been to turn Mauger and Moore into functional safeties. I can’t remember an embarrassing moment from either player and both turned in several solid plays on the night. And Bowman, buried by the last staff, played well at one of the corner spots.
- Deshaun Watson is going to be one helluva quarterback soon.
- Offensive line play was spotty in the first half. Theus played gamely against Beasley, but had some trouble with the speed rush. There was little push from the line in the power run game. But when they got going in the second half, boy, was it something to see. My favorite moment was Andrews being there at the end of Chubb’s big TD run.
- Bobo was patient and flexible. The first series yielded nothing, so he got creative with Michel and McKenzie and that got the offense moving. He was obviously confident that the running game was going to pay dividends eventually, so he stuck with it until it did. My only carping, and it’s minor, was that he abandoned challenging Clemson’s secondary with any medium range passing. That led to Venables cheating the safeties up for run support, which worked for a while… at least until Georgia’s backs blew past the safeties in the second half.
- Mason isn’t Aaron Murray. He doesn’t have Murray’s arm, something that may have factored into Bobo’s abandonment of the deep pass. But I thought he displayed better field awareness than Murray and was much less of a risk taker. With what looks like a dominant run game, that’s exactly what the offense needs. There were some pesky communication issues with the receivers at times, but that’s to be expected in an opener and there’s time to work that out. He delivers the ball quickly, which is something some of his receivers are still getting used to. All in all, he’s certainly good enough for the task at hand.
- Damn, does Georgia have a stable of running backs.
- Hearing all the talk about McKenzie’s quickness in preseason camp did not prepare me for how exciting he really is. He is going to break something big this season.
- They may not have listed a fullback on the final preseason roster, but they got plenty of good work out of Maxey and Hicks from that spot.
- Last, but certainly not least, improvement on the special teams. I had hoped for some slight positive developments. What I got was something much bigger than that. It’s clear that there’s been a massive upgrade in personnel, as the coverage teams were noticeably faster. Michel, in particular, is a demon from the outside. But the return teams were also vastly improved. Some of that was Gurley, of course. But Davis’ technique was clearly better. And the blocking on Gurley’s TD return was picture perfect.
So how much should we take away from last night? Well, start with players buying into what the coaches are selling. I’ve got to think every player on Georgia’s defense now believes Jeremy Pruitt walks on water. Ditto on the special teams front. Second, conditioning. For once, it wasn’t Georgia’s players wilting on a hot, humid night against an opponent whose offensive coordinator believes in running defenses into the ground with as many plays as possible. And third, this group of running backs has the potential to rival the deep groups that Georgia turned out in the mid- to late-80s.
As small sample sizes go, that’s as good a beginning as I could hope for.