ATHENS, Ga. — It didn’t sprint by slower defenders on turns or burst into space on a kick return.
But on a Saturday when Todd Gurley picked up one Heisman clip after another, Georgia’s defense sometimes looked almost as dominant as he did.
In Bulldogs defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s debut, Georgia made Clemson look awful in the second half: twenty-two plays, 15 yards and four sacks allowed. Seven possessions, seven punts. One first down.
“We definitely focused,” Georgia defensive back Aaron Davis said. “We knew, as a defense, we wanted to create an identity. We definitely knew, 21 points in a half is not the kind of things we’re looking for. We strive to be as best as we can.”
The Tigers never snapped the ball past their own 31 in the last two quarters. They had 276 yards on 54 first-half plays before stagnating.
It all made for a memorable opener for a defense that received much criticism in recent years. It also meant Pruitt, who won two national championships at Alabama as the secondary coach and then a third with Florida State a season ago as defensive coordinator, got a sparkling start to his tenure.
“Defensively in the second half, we took a little pressure off our corners by not playing as much man coverage,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “We challenged our men inside to keep them from running the football and we got a lot of good stuff. Jeremy (Pruitt) did a good job making the change. (Leonard) Floyd and (Jordan) Jenkins on the edge are formidable guys, and our inside linebackers played well for the most part. They moved the ball some on us, but after a little while, we shut that down as well.”
Even when the Bulldogs struggled for a bit, and they did early in trailing 21-14, they always got help from special teams. On Clemson’s three touchdown drives, they went 70, 78 and 68 yards. The Bulldogs were set up to succeed, even if they didn’t.
That wasn’t an often a problem.
With the game tied at 21 in the second quarter, redshirt freshman Davis came up with an interception at the Georgia 48. After injuries cost him just about all of his final two high school seasons at Luella High School, Davis had a remember-me Georgia debut of his own.
“Oh man, I should have scored,” Davis smiled. “I tripped – a lady bug got me. I should have scored. I don’t know how I fell.”
Deshaun Watson or Cole Stoudt, it didn’t matter which guy got the call to be Clemson’s quarterback in the last two quarters. Though Watson had a touchdown pass on only four pass attempts, he and Stoudt combined for 17 for 32 passing for 189 yards with a touchdown and an interception for the game. The Tigers also averaged only 2.3 yards per rush in the game, getting 102 yards.
Clemson had only one first down after halftime, and it came on the final play of the third quarter.
On the very next play, Josh Dawson sacked Stout. The rout was on.
“We just got confidence and started playing together,” said linebacker Amarlo Herrera, who had a game-best 12 tackles and two sacks. “Everybody just got on the same page, and everybody played with confidence. Everyone played their hardest.”