ATLANTA ——— Nick Chubb’s return to active football was amazing, stupendous and, for the sake of the Georgia Bulldogs, truly heroic.
The junior tailback’s 55-yard touchdown run with 4:40 left punctuated an electric, come-from-behind 33-24 win over No. 22 North Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic game here Saturday night.
Chubb’s final touchdown dash, his 32nd and last carry of the game, left him at 222 yards, a CFA Kickoff Classic record and the third 200-yard effort of his career. Such gaudy numbers seemed a million miles away 10 months ago, when the Cedartown, Ga., native went down with a severe knee injury in a game at Tennessee.
‘’Nick Chubb is a special person,’’ Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. ‘’He’s got great humility, has a great family and he works so hard. Not many people know what he’s been through to reach this point. There’s a reason he’s in the shape he’s in; it’s because of the way he works.’’
‘’It felt great to finally have a chance to come out here and play as a team,’’ Chubb said. ‘’For me, coming back out here for the first time felt amazing. I just took my mind off everything else and just played for my boys, the guys I’ve been with for the past couple of years. I felt good throughout the game. I had no idea where I was at any point in the game, as far as carries of yards. None of that matters to me. If the team calls on me, I know all of them are behind me.’’
The win opened the Kirby Smart era of Georgia football victoriously and in record-setting style. It marked Georgia’s first win in school history over a nationally-ranked team away from Athens.
‘’Our goal tonight was two-fold,’’ Smart said. ‘’We wanted to help our players understand how to play Georgia football. What that is, and get them to give the effort to play with the competitiveness and toughness that we want. That was it. It wasn’t about the scoreboard. It was just about doing that. I felt like if they did just that, then I’d be comfortable with how they played.
‘’They were resilient, they hard adversity and they kept fighting. There were a lot of doubters when they ball got kicked off and run back to start the second half. A lot of ‘here we go’s.’ But not one kid on that sideline doubted it.’’
After trailing for much of the second half, the Bulldogs drove 71 yards for the go-ahead score midway through the final quarter. The key play in the drive came when freshman Jacob Eason found Isaiah McKenzie streaking down the right sideline for 51 yards to the UNC 16. The drive stalled, however, and William Ham restored Georgia’s lead at 26-24 on a 29-yard field goal with 5:27 left.
Carolina’s next possession started ominously when the Tar Heels were flagged for an illegal block on the ensuing kickoff. Starting inside its own 10-yard line, UNC was stymied on three plays, the last of which was a first-down completion overturned by an official review.
Georgia needed just one play to put the game out of reach. Chubb took a pitch from Greyson Lambert, squirted off right tackle and outraced a Carolina defender down the sideline for his second and final score of the night.
Trailing 14-10 at halftime, North Carolina appeared to seize the game’s momentum on the second half kickoff, when T.J. Logan streaked 95 yards for a touchdown. Georgia’s next drive, though it covered 51 yards and used 12 plays, resulted in a missed Ham field goal from 42 yards.
The Tar Heels made quick work of their opportunity, stretching the margin to 24-14 on a 21-yard Logan touchdown run with 6:34 left in the third quarter.
It proved to be Carolina’s last score of the night.
Georgia responded with a 75-yard scoring drive that included four successful third-down conversions. Aided by a pair of key pass interference penalties on Carolina, the Bulldogs rang the bell on a 17-yard TD run by McKenzie at the 1:19 mark of the third quarter.
Two more UNC penalties — an ineligible receiver flag, as well as an unsportsmanlike conduct call on the Tar Heels’ head coach Larry Fedora — backed his team to its own 4-yard line on its next possession. The Bulldogs capitalized when Roquan Smith tackled Elijah Hood in the end zone for a safety that narrowed the margin to 24-23.
Georgia struck first on its second possession of the game. Chubb began to assert his dominance on the ground by rushing for 37 yards in a touchdown drive that he capped with a 2-yard run.
‘’I really thought our line of scrimmage was the difference in the game,’’ Smart said.
The Bulldogs return to the field next Saturday in their home opener against Nicholls. Kickoff is at 12:00 p.m. and the game will be televised on the SEC Network.