Seven thoughts and observations at halftime as Georgia and Clemson are tied at 21.
1. A few weeks ago we asked assistant coach Tony Ball, who runs Georgia's kickoff return unit, who he might use as returners. He listed a bunch of players who had done it before, including Todd Gurley. Full disclosure: I scoffed. I didn't think Georgia would risk its best player and bell cow on kickoff return. And I was wrong. Very dead wrong. Gurley was the deep man on all three kickoff returns in the first half. The first two were touchbacks he couldn't return. The third was also in the end zone, but not deep enough and Gurley took it out. One hundred yards later, the game was tied. Gurley famously had a 100-yard touchdown return in his college debut, against Buffalo. This wasn't Buffalo. For his career, as of halftime of this game, he has eight kickoff returns, one-quarter of which have been for touchdowns, and his average return has been for 42.9 yards. Yes, the injury risk is a concern, and if a game is no longer in doubt maybe you go to another guy. But when it's close, hard to argue now that No. 3 shouldn't be back there.
2. That said, it's absolutely fair to wonder if Georgia is over-thinking it when it comes to using Gurley enough on offense. He had just four rush attempts in the first half, and one catch. Georgia seems committed to giving Gurley rest so he's fresh for the fourth quarter. It may pay off eventually, but sometimes you can outsmart yourself. On third-and-short early in the second quarter, the ball went to Michel, who couldn't get it. And on the drive late in the second quarter after an interception, Gurley remained on the sideline as Georgia went three-and-out.
3. The new defense? Jeremy Pruitt has delivered on his promise to use different packages and to sub a lot. There have been dime packages, Leonard Floyd lined up at inside linebacker on some plays, and Ramik Wilson has been on the edge a lot. And at one point, with the game tied at 21, Pruitt had Wilson, Amarlo Herrera and Damian Swann all on the sideline for about five consecutive plays. Overall, it's been a mixed bag for the defense, which has given up 276 total yards, 174 through the air. There have been obvious improvements, including some stripped balls that could've been catches. And there hasn't been much out-and-out busted coverage. But Clemson has still been able to move the ball via the air, taking advantage of a young, inexperienced group. And the senior cornerback, Damian Swann, has been beat on a couple as well.
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4. Everyone was curious about Aaron Davis, sort of the symbol of the new secondary under Pruitt. The redshirt freshman walk-on was a non-factor last year, and on Saturday was playing his first real football game on defense in four years, since his sophomore year of high school. And Davis came through with a huge play for the secondary, leaping in front of a pass near midfield, providing Georgia its first turnover of the season. Georgia's offense, taking over at the 47, went three-and-out. But the interception was huge for the defense and validation for Davis' ascension this offseason.
5. Georgia's run defense has been fine. Not perfect, but enough to win. Once again it's the pass defense having the most trouble, especially on Clemson's last two touchdown drives. Clemson quarterback Cole Stoudt's running has been surprising, as he has 27 yards on eight attempts. But overall the Bulldogs seem to be doing a better job of flying to the ball, and the tackling is improved.
6. Now for the offense: Mike Bobo's trickery wasn't apparent on the first drive, then it came after that: He used the freshman all over the place, lining up Sony Michel at receiver, for one counter play and then a normal pass out of the slot. He also put McKenzie on the wide side and had him get the ball on a reverse. Georgia's opening drive was rougher: Three plays and minus-5 yards, with Gurley wrapped up behind the line on a third-down screen. For all the talk about spreading it out, the first two plays had a two-receiver set with walk-on Taylor Maxey at fullback. So Bobo went to the well on the next drive, giving it to Sony Michel on a reverse and then Isaiah McKenzie out of the slot. That opened things up for the expected stars: Mason hit Bennett near the left sideline for a long gain, then a couple plays later Gurley went untouched down the left side for a 23-yard TD.
7. Mason has been OK, though Georgia isn't really airing it out much. Clemson's pass rush has been strong, though Mason hasn't been sacked yet (other than an intentional grounding call), so that's a victory for the line. It's been very much a short passing attack thus far, with the exception of a couple deep balls early, each of which resulted in a pass interference call. Georgia probably needs to air it out a time or two more to keep Clemson honest. But when you don't have Malcolm Mitchell or Justin Scott-Wesley, you can't really force it.
Bonus thought: This has been a game of momentum swings, and you get the feeling it could remain that way in the second half. If Gurley leads Georgia to victory in the second half, then you laud the coaches for pacing him out and having him ready to close the game in this heat. But if Clemson wins, it's fair to look at the first half and wonder about some missed opportunities.