Just Give Todd Gurley the Damn Ball: Your Weekly College Football Wrap

Imagine you’re a football coach, and Todd Gurley is on your team. This shouldn’t be too tough, since most spectators seem to have plenty of ideas about how things ought to be run, and since if you’re going to conjure any player from your imagination, it might as well be Gurley. A few weeks removed from his 20th birthday, Georgia’s junior tailback commands the hyperbolic aura of a dreadlocked Paul Bunyan. At 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, he routinely leaves smaller defenders grasping in his wake. He takes kickoffs to the house. Attempting to tackle him seems akin to trying to halt a refrigerator full of bricks that’s strapped onto a skateboard atop a hill. As a freshman in 2012, Gurley’s gifts were so immediately and blatantly obvious that he began to elicit explicit comparisons to the mythical standard-bearer of Bulldogs backs, Herschel Walker. Two years later, Gurley is still outrunning the hype.

So imagine the temptation, if Gurley were on your team, to more or less ignore everyone else. This shouldn’t be too difficult, either, especially if you watched Georgia’s season-opening 45-21 win against Clemson on Saturday and found yourself (as I found myself) shouting through the cosmic ether to coach Mark Richt, “Just give him the damn ball.” Through three quarters, Gurley had only a dozen touches on offense, despite averaging 8.1 yards per carry and accounting for two of the Bulldogs’ three touchdowns on a 23-yard run and a 100-yard kickoff return. At that same point in the game, Georgia’s other, non-Gurley players had rushed 15 times for just 2.6 yards per carry, while quarterback Hutson Mason had lofted 26 passes at a paltry 5.0 yards per attempt. Entering the final frame, the Bulldogs had been forced to punt on four of their previous six possessions and were clinging to a tenuous 24-21 lead.

As it turned out, both coach and spectator were right. With fresh legs down the stretch, Gurley ripped through a gassed Tigers defense1 for 38 yards on his second carry of the fourth quarter, an 18-yard touchdown on his third carry, and a 51-yard dagger on his fourth that will serve as stock footage on all matters Gurley for the rest of the year. Georgia pulled away in emphatic fashion and Gurley set a school record with 293 all-purpose yards. Richt and his coaches were vindicated for their patience in a game of rope-a-dope. The wannabes in the cheap seats were vindicated for their insistence that the knockout could have come much sooner if the Bulldogs had thrown their best punch from the beginning — and kept throwing it. When you have a haymaker like no. 3 at your disposal, it’s hard to be wrong.

Still, to the extent that the conversation about the best player in college football is bound to revolve around numbers (as it inevitably is), the divide over Gurley’s workload will likely persist for as long as he plausibly holds the distinction. Although he looks the part of a traditional, high-volume workhorse, Gurley reached the 20-carry mark only eight times in his first two years (four times each season), and he exceeded 25 carries only twice (once each year). Including the romp over Clemson, he’s averaged about 16 carries per game in his career, and that number has barely shifted in SEC contests. Last year, a combination of injuries and split time left him just shy of 1,000 yards for the season, a bar eight other SEC players cleared. In fact, in the past decade, only two of Georgia’s many, many blue-chip backs have joined the 1,000-yard club: Gurley in 2012 and Knowshon Moreno in 2007 and 2008. When he has the option, Richt has always erred on the side of the committee over the individual star, and if the distribution against Clemson is any indication, he’s determined to follow that course again in 2014. Assuming Gurley fails to average 13.2 yards per carry over the full season, as he did on Saturday, his stat line will reflect those limitations.

With truly great players, though, the impulse to quantify and commemorate their greatness is often very much beside the point, and only risks dulling it. Admittedly, in a pursuit defined at the most basic level by the final score, statistics and accolades are a reflection of value, and are the best means we have to measure and compare; even with a player of Gurley’s obvious ability, we have to rely on the numbers to supply a baseline that allows the intangible hyperbole to take root. But to watch an athlete like Gurley at work is to understand that the argument is primarily visceral: He leaves the impression that, if the numbers somehow fail to confirm the totality of his presence on the field, the numbers must be lying. There’s a kind of truth in the box score, and an entirely different, more elemental variety in a human being of this size accelerating at this velocity through a fleeting crease at the 50-yard line.

Watching a moment like that unfold is a separate thing entirely from our obsession with productivity: You know it when you see it. You remember when you saw it, and when you said “oh my god,” because something had to be said and there was nothing else to say. And then when you texted “oh my god,” or tweeted it, because live sports are one of the vanishingly few shared cultural moments we have left.

That brief, personal reflex is its own commemoration, one that usually proves more enduring than the charts and trophies meant to give it form. It’s the reason we watch, and the reason we seethe, “Just give him the damn ball.”

Notebook

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No. 12 Georgia 45, no. 16 Clemson 21: Now, for the rest of the game! While Georgia’s ground attack stole the headlines, the evening also belonged to the UGA defense, which forced a typically formidable Clemson offense into nine three-and-outs and yielded just one first down in the second half. On their final three possessions, with the game still within reach, the Tigers lost yardage all three times before meekly punting it over to the Bulldogs and their backfield of doom. No opposing defense in 2013 held the Tigers to fewer yards (291), and only Florida State’s flame-throwing D held them to fewer yards per play (3.79).

It’s still too early to gauge how much that reflects on Clemson’s rebuilt offense, which got off to a fine start — delivering a 70-yard touchdown drive on its opening possession and putting together two more extended touchdown drives in the second quarter — before grinding to a halt and ultimately going backward. While the Tigers have clearly not filled the void left by departed headliners Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, the game was more competitive than the final score suggests, with Clemson actually outgaining Georgia over the first three quarters.

On the opposite side, though, there’s no denying the leap Georgia’s defense has made. Last year, the Bulldogs yielded 38 points in an opening-night loss to Clemson and went on to allow at least 30 points in seven of their subsequent 10 games against FBS opponents. On Saturday, in its first game under former Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, Georgia looked faster, more aggressive, and more competent across the board than it has in years against a ranked opponent, compensating for a vulnerable secondary by applying consistent pressure to the Tigers’ equally vulnerable quarterbacks.

At some point, we may have to acknowledge Clemson’s regression as a more compelling theme than the Bulldogs’ improvement, but at this point — and especially on the heels of South Carolina’s opening-night flop against Texas A&M — the first impression was more than enough to establish UGA as the front-runner in the SEC East.

No. 1 Florida State 37, Oklahoma State 31: Meanwhile, Pruitt’s old FSU team seemed to genuinely miss him. Well, maybe. Although maybe not, or at least not as much as the not-so-fast! vibe in the second half led some to believe. On one hand, excluding Auburn in the BCS title game, only one opposing offense in 2013 (Boston College) matched the point total Oklahoma State posted against the mighty Seminoles or OSU’s tally for total offense (364 yards) on Saturday night. Once the Cowboys began to pick up speed in the second quarter, they kept it up, putting together three 75-plus-yard touchdown drives and a fourth TD drive that took advantage of a short field. Had they recovered a last-ditch onside kick following that fourth score, there would have been no reason to think the same defense that had suffered severe, random breakdowns earlier in the half was suddenly destined to make the stop.

But the doom-and-gloom narrative really only makes sense on a curve that expects the defending champs to obliterate all comers in perpetuity. It’s fair to say that FSU looked rusty, especially Jameis Winston, who was intercepted twice, sacked twice, and finished with a pass efficiency rating (138.5) more than 45 points below the FBS-best rating he posted in 2013.

It’s also fair to say that Oklahoma State is almost certainly going to be better than its extreme lack of experience suggests. But Winston still passed for 370 yards, FSU still outgained the Cowboys by more than 100 yards of total offense, and the Seminoles never trailed. In fact, OSU had the ball on three occasions in the second half with a chance to tie or take the lead, and it didn’t come close to scoring on any of them.

My inclination is to give Oklahoma State credit for a better talent base than it’s had in the past, and to look forward to the Cowboys making some of their usual noise against a backloaded Big 12 schedule. They likely won’t be seriously challenged again until November and December, when they get Kansas State, Texas, Baylor, and Oklahoma in consecutive games, and by then, they may have grown into an entirely different team. Florida State, meanwhile, may not be the irresistible force the preseason hype suggested, but it will take more than a relatively close call against a quality opponent to convince me that FSU is actually vulnerable.

No. 2 Alabama 33, West Virginia 23: The same can be said for the most viable challenger to FSU’s throne, Alabama, which failed to grind West Virginia into a fine paste but did manage to outgain the Mountaineers by 145 yards (538 to 393) and was never in serious jeopardy of trailing after halftime. The Big Question for the Crimson Tide was answered definitively: Senior Blake Sims is the starting quarterback, and he apparently will remain the starting quarterback after taking every meaningful snap Saturday with nary a peep from the guy everyone expected to win the job, FSU transfer Jacob Coker, until the dying seconds. Sims was efficient, more or less, completing 24 of 33 passes for 250 yards, but he didn’t challenge WVU downfield. He also didn’t have much incentive to, with both T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry cracking 100 yards rushing. Alabama held the ball for nearly 38 minutes and punted only twice.

The other lingering question mark for Bama hung over the cornerbacks, and it was not resolved with nearly as much clarity as the quarterback situation. Juniors Cyrus Jones and Bradley Sylve started and played from start to finish but were both beaten for a handful of big plays in the process by the Mountaineers’ not-very-hyped wide receivers.2 Pedestrian QB Clint Trickett, last seen playing the role of carefully coiffed punching bag for Big 12 defenses in 2013, bombed the Tide secondary for 365 yards passing, the most of any opposing passer in the Nick Saban era other than Johnny Manziel. Alabama also failed to create a turnover, resorting instead to a bend-don’t-break approach that kept WVU out of the end zone in the second half. If this was last year’s version of West Virginia, which finished near the bottom of the Big 12, that would be a giant red flag. Until we have some idea how good the 2014 Mountaineers are, though, the jury is still out, and Bama remains Bama until further notice.

No. 13 LSU 28, no. 14 Wisconsin 24: At one point, Wisconsin’s All–Big Ten running back, Melvin Gordon, looked to be well on his way to earning MVP honors in Houston, racking up 76 yards rushing in the first half and opening the second half with a 63-yard run on the first play from scrimmage; teammate Corey Clement finished the drive a few plays later to give the Badgers a commanding 24-7 lead. And then Gordon … well, he just sort of vanished, earning a grand total of three carries for one yard over the final 28 minutes of the game. Afterward, neither Gordon nor his head coach seemed to have the slightest clue what happened:

Where was tailback Melvin Gordon in the second half?

“There was a little bit of a scenario with Melvin being completely ready to go at halftime,” UW coach Gary Andersen said. “But he came out and hit the long run and he seemed to be OK.”

[…]

Why was Gordon on the bench so frequently for the final 1 ½ quarters?

“I don’t know that,” Andersen said.

[…]

“I was good, man,” Gordon said when asked about the lack of playing time. “I was all good. They went with Corey … I’m a little sore. Obviously you get hit … but I’m A-OK.”

Wisconsin’s final five possessions of the night covered a total of 32 yards, resulting in three punts, plus two interceptions from quarterback Tanner McEvoy, a converted safety making his first career start on offense. It was during this period that Sean McDonough, calling play-by-play for ESPN, described the Badgers offense thus, and accurately: “Every pass attempt is an act of desperation.”

Meanwhile, LSU rebounded from a dismal first half to score 21 unanswered points, sauntering off with a come-from-behind, Jekyll-and-Hyde victory that lends virtually no insight into the rest of the season. The Tigers remain unsettled at quarterback, or inconsistent at best, and based on the first half of this game, they still have some issues to figure out against the run.

Despite their legendary capacity for pregame intake, Wisconsin fans are relatively levelheaded folks. Before the game, they would have grudgingly accepted a three-point loss to one of the heavy hitters in the SEC as a solid showing, especially given the realities of a new quarterback and an overhauled defense. But when the head coach claims ignorance regarding the status of his best player while his team is in the midst of blowing a 17-point lead — when he literally says “I don’t know” why said player suddenly spent most of the second half on the bench — that goodwill tends to evaporate in a hurry.

California 31, Northwestern 24: Everyone knew this was a nowhere-to-go-but-up kind of season for Cal after last year’s 1-11 debacle, but surely no one saw the Golden Bears taking off quite like this: The upset in Evanston marked their first victory over an FBS opponent since October 2012, under previous coach Jeff Tedford. Last year, their first under Sonny Dykes, the Baby Bears suffered through extreme youth and an even more extreme plague of injuries, dropping every Pac-12 game by an average margin of 28 points. The standard trajectory for a rebuilding project of that magnitude is this: (1) lose big, (2) lose close, (3) win close, (4) win big. Obviously, this was just one game, and Northwestern is not Oregon or Stanford. But if the Bears are intent on dispensing with Phase 2 and progressing directly to Phase 3, they’re going to be a very interesting team to have around in the Pac-12 North.

Reorientation

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It’s time to rethink: UCLA’s offense. Did you buy the hype? Coming off a 10-3 finish in 2013, UCLA gradually emerged over the offseason as a chic alternative to the incumbent Pac-12 powers, Oregon and Stanford, resulting in a run on the Bruins’ stock: The later your predictions were published, the more likely you were to pick preseason no. 7 UCLA to win the Pac-12, make the cut in a four-team playoff at the end of the regular season, or, if you came in at the very end, to win the whole damn thing. According to the odds site Bovada.com, the Bruins’ chances of claiming the national championship climbed from 25/1 in January to 14/1 as of last week, an eight-month period in which nothing changed except the number of people willing to buy in.

In that context, Saturday’s 28-20 win at Virginia rivaled South Carolina’s collapse versus A&M for the most disappointing debut of the weekend. Contrary to what the scoreboard might lead you to believe, the UCLA offense failed to post any points until the final minute of the third quarter; before that, the first eight possessions had resulted in six punts, a missed field goal, and a fumble. Altogether, the Bruins generated more combined penalties (12), sacks (5), and turnovers (2) than first downs (16), despite facing a Cavaliers defense that ranked last in the ACC in 2013 in points allowed.

Instead, it was the Bruins’ own defense that provided the cushion by converting three Virginia turnovers into touchdowns in the first half. (The generosity abruptly ceased when UVa pulled its starting quarterback, Greyson Lambert, for redshirt sophomore Matt Johns late in the second quarter; from that point on, the Cavaliers didn’t commit another turnover and outscored UCLA 17-7.) Not every opponent is going to cough up the ball for three easy scores, but from the looks of the Bruins’ offensive line on Saturday, most of them will be able to pressure quarterback Brett Hundley with impunity.

Superlatives

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The best of Week 1 

Dee Hart, RB, Colorado State: Hart never lived up to his massive recruiting hype at Alabama, falling victim to major knee injuries in 2011 and 2012 and a marijuana arrest in February near the end of his career in Tuscaloosa. In his first game as a Ram, though, he stole the show, gashing Colorado for 174 yards from scrimmage (139 rushing, 35 receiving) and two touchdowns in a 31-17 CSU win. An Orlando native, Hart wound up at Colorado State only because of his former offensive coordinator at Bama, Jim McElwain, who’s now in his third season as the Rams’ head coach. But if Friday night is any indication of what’s to come, it’s a fair bet both will be moving on from Fort Collins by January to bigger and better things.

Tyreek Hill, RB/WR/KR, Oklahoma State: OSU fans already knew all about Hill, a junior college transfer who made waves in the spring in both football and track, where he was voted an All-American in the 200 meters. It took only a few hours on Saturday for the rest of America to find out: In his first game in pads, Hill accounted for 278 all-purpose yards against Florida State (44 rushing, 62 receiving, 172 on kick/punt returns), putting the Noles through their paces more strenuously than anyone expected. Now imagine him against Big 12 defenses, in the Cowboys’ pedal-to-the-metal offense, and break out the marshmallows.

Catch of the Year of the Week — Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska: Westerkamp already has one unforgettable catch seared into the collective Cornhusker memory, having somehow come down with the game-winning bomb to beat Northwestern last November. For sheer degree of difficulty, though, even a Hail Mary pales in comparison to the behind-the-back gem he managed Saturday against Florida Atlantic:

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If you’re going to schedule Florida Atlantic, you may as well get a little Globetrotter with it.

Fat Guy of the Week — David Andrews, Georgia: It only feels like Gurley ran through the entire Clemson defense by himself. In fact, the blocking was superb for all of Georgia’s backs, especially in the fourth quarter, and especially on the part of the Bulldogs’ senior center, who paved the way as a pulling blocker on both Gurley’s 51-yard touchdown run (see above) and the 47-yard sprint by true freshman Nick Chubb that preceded it. Follow no. 61 to freedom!

That’s a 294-pound man, in the fourth quarter, in full sprint all the way home.

Demerits

… and the worst.

Bethune Cookman 14, Florida International 12: Losing to an FCS team is bad enough. Losing to the same FCS team for the second year in a row is even worse. Losing to the same FCS team for the second year in a row, shortly after firing a popular head coach for no discernible reason? No wonder FIU is actively trying to stop people from writing about the team.

• Terrel Hunt, QB, Syracuse: There’s a line between “competitiveness” and “dickishness,” and Hunt wasted no time crossing it Friday night by throwing a punch at a Villanova defender following a routine tackle in the second quarter, thereby earning a 15-yard penalty and an ejection from the game. Without their starting quarterback, the Orange needed two overtimes and the divine intervention of the field goal gods to avoid an upset, posting just 320 yards of offense in a 27-26 escape.

• At Home With Eastern Michigan: 2014 marks the beginning of a new era at Eastern Michigan, with a new head coach and a full-scale rebranding of the nation’s most perpetually empty venue, Rynearson Stadium. To commemorate the first game in “The Factory,” the Eagles took the field Saturday by taking sledgehammers to a row of cinder blocks meant to represent … well … I dunno, some kind of wall or something. They’re breaking the barriers! You know, eventually.

Actually, for a program that does face many barriers to lifting itself out of the MAC cellar, this was kind of cute. The gray FieldTurf, on the other hand?

Maybe evoking a desolate wasteland from the days before color TV isn’t the best look for EMU.

Filed Under: College Football, College Football Week 1, College Football Playoff, Georgia Bulldogs, Clemson Tigers, Todd Gurley, Florida State Seminoles, Oklahoma State Cowboys, Jameis Winston, Alabama Crimson Tide, West Virginia Mountaineers, Blake Sims, T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry, UCLA Bruins, Brett Hundley, LSU Tigers, Wisconsin Badgers, Melvin Gordon, Cal Bears, Northwestern Wildcats, Superlatives and Demerits, Catch of the Year of the Week, Fat Guy of the Week, NCAA, NCAAF, Matt Hinton

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Matt Hinton is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ MattRHinton