Of the many revelations from Georgia's 45-21 win over Clemson on Saturday, one stood out: This Bulldog defense can be SEC Championship-caliber.
Yes, Todd Gurley is a Heisman Trophy candidate. Sure, the special teams play was noticeably improved. But the play of Georgia's defense—particularly in the second half—was the most pleasant surprise for the Bulldogs.
New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt's unit started slow against a surprisingly potent 1-2 punch of Tiger quarterbacks, but halftime adjustments gave way to a havoc-wreaking, pressure-driven second half shutdown.
To be sure, mistake were made. But quite encouragingly for Georgia fans, the lion's share of those missteps were made in the first half. Accordingly, this game won't be remembered for missed tackles or an inability to locate the ball on deep passes. Instead, Pruitt's first game at Georgia will be remembered for two scoreless quarters.
|Clemson Offensive Production by Half|
|Statistical Category||First Half||Second Half|
After experiencing success and posting 21 points in the first half, Cole Stoudt and Deshaun Watson (Clemson's two quarterbacks) were altogether unable to manufacture anything resembling a long drive after halftime. Chaotic blitzing schemes dialed up by Pruitt and sound open-field tackling by the Bulldogs kept the Tigers from achieving first down yardage until the final play of the third quarter.
Surprisingly, Clemson did manage to complete several passes during that stretch, but marked improvements in wrapping up elusive receivers in the flats kept the Tigers in check.
In the fourth quarter, Pruitt didn't let up. To the contrary, he ramped up pressure on the quarterback by relying on various zone blitzes and misdirection. Outside linebackers Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins showed signs of quarterback pursuit before dropping into coverage. Their feigned attempts proved just enough to allow inside pressure from the likes of Amarlo Herrera to break through the line of scrimmage.
Simultaneously, middle linebackers and even defensive backs would show blitz alignments before dropping back into coverage. As a result, Floyd spent the bulk of the second half in the Tiger backfield. His pressure—and that of the Bulldog front seven as a whole—was relentless. More importantly, it was effective.
And yet, the individual achievements pale in comparison to the symbolic achievement of the win. Sure, holding Clemson to just one first down in the second half was a noteworthy feat. But more significant was the stark contrast of on-field production following halftime.
There were signs of promise early in the game. The defense seemed to swarm the way fans expected a Pruitt-coached unit to do. Walk-on redshirt freshman Aaron Davis, who was buried on the depth chart in 2013, made a first-half interception. A variety of alignments were used to varying degrees of success.
But none of those hints prepared Georgia fans—or Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, for that matter—for what was to come in the game's final two quarters. Pruitt's ability to tweak defensive packages and completely eliminate the demonstrated strengths of the Tigers' offensive attack while simultaneously patching up (or at least hiding) Georgia's biggest holes was inspiring for a young defense. Furthermore, it was a welcome change from the coaching style of former defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.
Grantham routinely stuck to his scheme and remained loyal to his personnel—even when success was limited. Pruitt came ready to adjust anything and everything, and that's what was necessary to put together such a stellar performance on Saturday night.
That's also what it will take to compete for an SEC Championship.
Georgia's individual parts will improve on defense. After all, Pruitt is an educator who likes to teach fundamentals, as he told Seth Emerson of the Ledger-Enquirer earlier this month. But he's already implementing championship-caliber in-game adjustments. And that's an immeasurable step forward for this Georgia defense.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. All stats courtesy of NCAA.com.