LINCOLN — Nebraska defensive end Jason Ankrah walked away impressed by Todd Gurley a year ago, when the Georgia tailback ran for 125 yards and a touchdown as the Bulldogs pulled out a Capital One Bowl victory.
Gurley was big, strong and physical, and it was a little hard to believe the Georgia tailback was just 18 years old.
“You couldn't tell he was a freshman,” Ankrah said. “He's a dominating player, and we have a lot of respect for him.”
With a Nebraska-Georgia rematch coming in the Gator Bowl, the Huskers are preparing to see Gurley again — and the 6-foot-1, 232-pounder might be even more important to the Bulldogs heading into the Jan. 1 game in Jacksonville, Fla.
Gurley missed three-plus games this season with an ankle injury and hasn't been able to match his freshman numbers. But he started returning to form last month, and now Georgia is without both his sidekick Keith Marshall and quarterback Aaron Murray.
So guess who the Huskers expect to be a focal point of the Georgia attack on New Year's Day?
“Oh, yeah, for sure,” Ankrah said. “I don't know what their game plan is, but when you have a running back like that and with the quarterback out, chances are that's who they're going to stick with.”
Gurley pushed his season total to 903 yards by running for 453 in November after returning from the injury. He finished the regular season at Georgia Tech with 24 touches (20 rushes, four receptions) and four touchdowns.
During his comeback, Gurley also fueled the Bulldogs' near-upset at Auburn on Nov. 16, carrying 15 times for 79 yards and catching 10 passes for 77 more before the Tigers scored on an improbable 73-yard touchdown with 25 seconds left.
That's the player that Nebraska expects to see. And that will add to the challenge for a Husker defense that already has allowed a 100-yard rusher in eight of 12 games this season.
“He's a beast,” NU cornerback Ciante Evans said. “He's different. You watch him on tape, he's explosive. He's physical, he's fast. He's a good back.
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“I think they're going to try to establish the run and get him more involved in the offense — let him find his rhythm, let him find his groove — so he can control the offense.”
Gurley burst on the scene a year ago when he ran for 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns, joining Herschel Walker as the only true freshmen in Georgia history to eclipse 1,000 yards.
He then started this season with 154 yards at Clemson and 132 against South Carolina, averaging 6.8 per carry and scoring three touchdowns against two current Top 15 teams.
Gurley already had 73 yards on eight carries against LSU on Sept. 28 when he hurt his ankle in the first half. Georgia then barely beat Tennessee and lost to Missouri and Vanderbilt without him.
Five backs ran for 138 or more yards against Nebraska this season, including four in Big Ten play. At least out loud, Evans on Wednesday wasn't going to say what kind of number the Huskers would put as a target for Gurley.
“I don't really too much worry about how many yards he's going to get,” Evans said. “He's going to do his thing and we're going to try to hold him.”
Nebraska had mixed success last New Year's Day, holding Gurley to 13 yards on his first six carries and 7 yards on his last six. In between, however, Gurley broke a 24-yard touchdown in the second quarter and added runs of 19, 24 and 13.
“He ran hard, and he was a lot faster than people give him credit for,” NU cornerback Josh Mitchell said. “Very elusive back.”