ATHENS, Ga. -- Even after Georgia Southern had driven deep into Georgia territory Saturday to potentially tie the score or take the lead just before halftime, Georgia coach Mark Richt actually used all three of his timeouts as the Eagles neared his team’s goal line.
His reasoning for stopping the clock three times with the Eagles inside field-goal range? Save as much time as possible for quarterback Aaron Murray and the offense because they have already established a track record for putting points on the board in the waning moments of the half.
“I made the decision as the head coach to be aggressive and say, ‘Let’s go get it,’ because I’ve got faith in our scheme and our quarterback, obviously. It kind of starts there,” Richt said. “When you worry about the quarterback making a mistake, you don’t want to do that.”
And once again -- for the fifth time this season, actually -- Murray repaid his coach’s confidence by directing a drive that resulted in valuable points with 30 seconds or less remaining until halftime.
Aided by a 15-yard penalty for a chop block that canceled out a fourth-down conversion at the Georgia 5 and instead forced Georgia Southern kicker Alex Hanks to attempt a 39-yard field goal, which he missed, Georgia’s defense had protected the lead when it handed the ball back to Murray and the offense.
The Bulldogs led just 10-7 and desperately needed to create some momentum after the Eagles arguably had outplayed them in the second quarter. The goal was to put a touchdown on the board, and the Bulldogs had 1:03 left in the half to reach the end zone.
“We felt we could move the ball on them,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “We hadn’t punted the whole half. We kind of just had some self-inflicted wounds there and were kind of disappointed because the defense had a fourth-down stop and then they created a turnover and we were able to get no points, which was frustrating.”
But against the FCS-opponent Eagles, the Bulldogs' veteran quarterback worked some more of his last-minute magic. Murray started the drive from his own 22 with an 8-yard completion to tight end Jay Rome, followed by a 15-yard penalty for roughing the passer that moved the ball near midfield.
He followed with completions of 10 yards to Tavarres King and 21 yards to Rome, giving the Bulldogs a first down at the GSU 24 with 26 seconds left in the half. Murray threw consecutive incompletions into the end zone to Chris Conley and Malcolm Mitchell as time slipped away before he finally lofted a perfect 24-yard scoring pass to Mitchell with only 4 seconds left in the half.
Marshall Morgan’s PAT made it 17-7 at halftime and finally gave the Bulldogs some breathing room -- and they stayed hot to start the third quarter, scoring touchdowns on each of their first three possessions to increase their advantage to 38-7.
“We practiced it a lot this offseason,” Murray said of the Bulldogs’ success running the hurry-up offense just before the half. “We have some veteran guys on the outside at receiver who know how to get lined up, know the signals and we’re not having to communicate a lot. They know what their job is, they know the plays Coach Bobo usually tends to call in the one-minute situations. And we practice a lot during the week as well, so we know what we’re doing when we get in that spot.”
Murray, however, is the player who makes it work -- and Rome emphasized that point after the game.
“I feel like Aaron is a great quarterback and not just a great quarterback, but a great leader,” Rome said. “The plays that we run in one-minute, that’s what they’re for -- for a quick, hurry-up offense and getting down the field and I feel like Aaron runs it to perfection. He gets everybody in the right place, he reads the defense well and gets the ball in the right place.”
The points Georgia previously produced in such situations were at least as valuable:
• Murray’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Marlon Brown against Missouri with 30 seconds left in the first half cut the Bulldogs’ halftime deficit to 10-9.
• A quick drive against Tennessee led to a 50-yard Morgan field goal at the horn that made it 30-all at halftime and halted a 20-0 Volunteers run.
• Morgan gave Georgia a 16-14 halftime lead against Kentucky with a 27-yard field goal at the buzzer.
• Murray’s 40-yard touchdown pass to King with 3 seconds left in the half against Ole Miss helped the Bulldogs take a 14-10 lead at intermission.
Add Saturday’s touchdown drive to the list of hurry-up heroics for the Bulldogs, whose coach believes that turn of events -- with Georgia Southern going scoreless and Georgia’s offense following with a touchdown drive that produced a 10-point halftime advantage -- was the pivotal point in the game.
“To drive the field the distance that we went and put points on the board without any timeouts I thought was a really special job by those guys,” Richt said. “So we’ve got faith in them and we need to keep doing that if we get the opportunity.”
Saturday’s touchdown pass from Aaron Murray to Malcolm Mitchell with only 4 seconds remaining in the first half was far from the first time this season that Georgia has notched a difference-making score just before halftime. In fact, it was the third time in the last five games that the Bulldogs scored with fewer than 5 seconds remaining until halftime, either taking the lead or padding a narrow advantage each time.
Let’s recap each of Georgia’s scores this season with fewer than two minutes left in the opening half: