ATLANTA — Nick Chubb left no doubt.
He’s fully recovered from that grotesque knee injury.
Less than 10 months after going down on a play that’s still tough to watch, Chubb ran for 222 yards and a pair of touchdowns to lead No. 18 Georgia to a 33-24 victory over No. 22 North Carolina in Kirby Smart’s coaching debut Saturday night.
Looking just as dominant as he did before his injury, Chubb carried a staggering 32 times and clinched the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game victory for Georgia (1-0) on a 55-yard run with 3 1-2 minutes left in the game.
“That dude doesn’t stop,” moaned North Carolina defensive lineman Nazair Jones.
Chubb said he never doubted his ability to recapture the form that made him a Heisman contender before a tackle at Tennessee midway through last season caused his left knee to buckle in the wrong direction, an injury that looked so bad some wondered if it might be career ending.
“I felt good the whole game,” Chubb said. “Give me the ball. I know we have a great team.”
Georgia also got some promising play from freshman quarterback Jacob Eason , who didn’t start but was on the field as the Bulldogs rallied from a 24-14 deficit in the second half.
North Carolina (0-1) ripped off 17 straight points, including a pair of touchdowns by T.J. Logan that included a 95-yard kickoff return to start the second half.
Then, a pair of pass interference penalties on freshman cornerback Patrice Rene set up a touchdown that got Georgia back in the game, and two more penalties — one an unsportsmanlike conduct call on coach Larry Fedora — backed up the Tar Heels deep in their own territory, leading to a safety when Elijah Hood caught a short pass in the end zone and was quickly knocked down.
“We got the penalty on a lineman downfield. I was questioning the call. The guy didn’t like what I said, so he threw a flag on me,” Fedora said. “That’s nobody’s fault but mine.”
Fifth-year senior Greyson Lambert started at quarterback for Georgia, but Eason — a touted freshman Georgia fans were clamoring to see — hooked up with Isaiah McKenzie on a 51-yard pass that set up William Ham’s go-ahead, 29-yard field goal with 5:27 remaining.
Smart, the longtime Alabama defensive coordinator, was coaching a team of his own for the first time. He was hired after the Bulldogs dumped Mark Richt, who wound up at Miami after 15 years leading Georgia.
“It felt really weird,” Smart said, chuckling. “A comedy of errors. I had to flip over on my headphones, trying to figure out who I was talking to. That was different for me. I was trying to find the special teams. I didn’t feel like I was coaching my players, which I always felt was my best asset. It was a unique experience for me that I will build on and learn from.”
GEORGIA’S QB QUESTION
Eason looks poised to take over the Georgia quarterback job, but Smart isn’t ready to make the call just yet.
The freshman was 8 of 12 for 131 yards and a touchdown, while Lambert went 5 of 8 for 54 yards. The fifth-year senior also was sacked three times.
“There is no plan right now,” said Smart, who didn’t name a starter until two days before the game. “I’m sure all you guys (in the media) will want to know who’s going to start the next game, and we’ll start it all over again.”
North Carolina: The Tar Heels were eager for a signature win over a major-conference foe, but too many silly mistakes — and that one disputed penalty — worked against them. Despite 11 wins a year ago, they have yet to show they are ready to challenge Clemson and Florida State in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Georgia: The play of Chubb and Eason gives the Bulldogs plenty of reason to feel hopeful about contending in the Southeastern Conference East, especially after a shaky showing by favored Tennessee in its season opener. When running back Sony Michel returns from a broken left forearm sustained in an ATV accident — and he sure looked good in pregame warmups — the Bulldogs will have another offensive weapon.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels are likely to drop out when the new rankings are unveiled Tuesday.
Georgia: The Bulldogs should move up a spot and could jump a couple of teams that beat lesser opponents in Week 1.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels hit the road again next Saturday to face Big Ten school Illinois. It will be their first visit to Champaign since 1971. North Carolina leads the series 3-0, including last year’s 48-14 rout in Chapel Hill.
Georgia: The Bulldogs take big step down in competition when they host FCS school Nicholls State between the hedges.