ATHENS -- As Leonard Floyd puts it, Georgia’s defense was simple in the second half.
“Everybody knew what they were doing. The defense was easy,” Floyd said. “We played the same calls basically the whole time.”
For anyone watching No. 12 Georgia’s defensive unit in the team’s 45-21 victory over No. 16 Clemson on Saturday, it seemed to be anything but simple. A total of 21 Georgia defenders made their way onto the game’s final stat sheet, a testament to the faith Georgia’s coaching staff had in its defensive depth.
There were times cornerback Damian Swann filled the linebacker slot. There were times Floyd was essentially playing the nose tackle position, attacking the quarterback from the middle. Aaron Davis, who recorded his first-career interception, even said postgame that he couldn’t remember whether he’d played more cornerback or more safety. It’s also worth noting that Georgia head coach Mark Richt couldn’t “remember the last time (Georgia) had an interception” like the leaping one Davis had against Clemson’s Cole Stoudt.
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But Georgia’s defense made one thing clear Saturday: They don’t care who is on the field or where they are playing. Or, to take Swann’s words, “In Pruitt they trust.”
“Hats off to Coach Pruitt, man. We love that guy because he has so much confidence in us,” Swann said. “Whatever he puts us in, he knows we can execute it.”
Pruitt wasn’t made available after the game, but his players made up for his absence by mentioning his name countless times. After allowing 21 points and 276 total yards in the first half, Pruitt, according to linebacker Jordan Jenkins, entered the locker room surprisingly calm.
His message was short and clear.
“He really just came in and said it’s another business day. It’s nothing we’re not used to,” Jenkins said. “It’s just been two quarters. We’re a four-quarter team.”
His point fueled the defense immediately to start the second half. Clemson’s first three possessions of the half ended abruptly with three-consecutive three-and-outs. In fact, the Tigers’ only first down of the entire second half didn’t come until there were 16 seconds left in the third quarter.
The defense knew how crucial those early stops proved to be.
“That was big because that crushes an offense,” Jenkins said. “Three three-and-outs in a row right at the half. That’s just demoralizing.”
As the game wore on, Clemson’s offense proved Jenkins to be right. In the sweltering heat, Georgia’s players noticed Clemson players tiring. The Bulldogs made sure to take advantage.
“That’s when we started to rev up some of the pressures. We knew that as the game progressed, they couldn’t hang with us,” Jenkins said. “Some of the offensive guys were saying their defensive guys were getting tired. I think Theus said that (Clemson defensive lineman Vic) Beasley was cramping, some of their defensive guys were giving out. That just made us want to keep fighting more to be the better defense on the field that day.”
Georgia, on the other hand, didn’t fatigue. With the mass substitutions, players were fresh and ready to contribute at full speed when they were on the field.
Richt said that constant personnel adjustments kept everyone fresh, a game plan his staff hasn’t always been brave enough to implement.
“It’s nice to get a rest physically, but it’s nice to get a rest mentally, as well. We knew going in we were going to sub a lot,” Richt said. “I can’t tell you how many times over the years we’re in the meetings saying, ‘We’re going to sub; we’re going to sub,’ and then you get into the game and we just say, ‘Oh we can’t put the second team in. The game’s too close.’ But we did it from the very beginning and I’m glad Pruitt and the rest of the defensive staff stayed true.”