ATHENS — The Todd Gurley era at Georgia got off to a bad start Saturday. His first carry as a Bulldog, a toss sweep to the left side, went for all of one yard.
Of course, it went a little better thereafter.
After his 55-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter, the freshman tailback from Tarboro, N.C., had 227 yards and three touchdowns on 10 touches as Georgia slept-walked to a 45-23 victory over Buffalo in its season opener at Sanford Stadium.
“I felt like I did pretty good,” said Gurley, not realizing the understatement. “Not having ever come in here and played, I think did all right. But I’ve still got to take it one game at a time. I still have to come back next week and improve.”
Fans didn’t have to wait long to see what all the preseason fuss was regarding Gurley. On his second carry from scrimmage, Gurley broke two tackles at the line of scrimmage and scored on a 10-yard run off left tackle. Five minutes later, he returned a kickoff 100 yards for another score. It was a breath-taking jaunt that highlight Gurley’s power, agility and exceptional speed.
“That’s exactly what we’ve been seeing all preseason, all summer,” junior offensive guard Chris Burnett said. “I didn’t want to pump him up too much because he’s a freshman and I didn’t want him to feel like he’d arrived already. But just watching him in practice, you knew he was very, very impressive. He just showcased in the game today what he does in practice.”
Georgia fans wondered if the show was over after the kickoff return. Gurley was quietly ushered to the locker room by trainers shortly afterward. Turns out the electrifying run took a little out of him. He cramped up and had to go to the locker room to be administered fluids.
“I was a little tired,” Gurley said. “I was still running after I scored until my teammates caught me and knocked me down.”
In the end, Gurley finished with 100 yards on 8 carries as a tailback and 127 on two returns as a kick returner. He scored 33 percent of the time he touched the ball.
“He averaged about what he did in every scrimmage, about 12.5 yards a carry,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “I hope that’s a trend. I wouldn’t he betting on that for the rest of his career. But everybody got a chance to see what we had seen.”
There’s a good chance Gurley will get the ball a more against Missouri next Saturday in Columbia. Starting tailback Ken Malcome, a sophomore from Decatur, injured his left hand in the second half and did not return. He left Sanford Stadium in a cast but said he was holding out hope that it’s just a sprain.
Richt said it would have be determined later. But Georgia’s young backs are ready when called on.
“If he can’t go, me and Keith will have to step I up,” said Gurley of Keith Marshall, a fellow freshman from North Carolina who was Georgia’s second-leading rusher Saturday ( 46 yards, 10 carries). “That’s what we signed up for. Players want to come in and play for a top football program. We’re just going to have to get used to it and take it and handle it right away.”
Gurley’s performance and a few other big offense plays glossed over what was otherwise a lackluster if not downright disconcerting performance by Georgia.
The Bulldogs got a 63-yard pass from Aaron Murray to Tavarres King to give them what looked like a cushy and comfortable 24-6 lead with 9:26 left in the first half. But then they appeared to take the rest of the half off.
Buffalo, 5-19 the last two seasons in the Mid-American Conference, put a bit of a scare into the sedate crowd, which failed to fill up Sanford Stadium for a home opener for the first time since 1998. They trailed just 24-16 at the half and, if not for some special teams breakdowns, could have had a first-half lead.
Of particular concern was Georgia’s ballyhooed defense. The Bulls rolled up 347 yards while executing scoring drives of 94, 75 and 75 yards. They reached the Georgia 1 and had to settle for an 18-yard field goal two seconds before the half. If not for Gurley’s TD return and a blocked a punt by Chris Conley that set up a field goal, Buffalo could’ve grabbed the lead.
“Their defense was really hyped up, but we had a lot of confidence coming in,” said Buffalo running back Brandon Oliver, who had 111 yards rushing. “We thought we had a chance to win, and for a while we did.”
Meanwhile, Georgia’s offense wasn’t sharp. Murray finished with 258 yards and 3 touchdowns, but he threw 11 incompletions and missed open receivers deep several times. Murray was also sacked three times and the Bulldogs’ young offensive line came out of the game beat up.
Freshman John Theus, the starting right tackle, had to leave the game early in the fourth quarter with a sprained ankle. Right guard Burnette was sidelined with a bruised sternum
“It wasn’t pretty,” Richt said. “I wasn’t thrilled with the way we played… . We better play better than that next week or we’ll be riding home sad.”
Georgia plays its SEC opener next Saturday in Columbia, Mo., at 7:45 p.m. (ESPN2)
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