ATHENS, Ga. - Even when the Georgia Bulldogs won eight times in 13 outings last season, the defense was almost never the reason for success. It gave up an average of 29 points a game for the season, surrendering 40 or more on three occasions.
So when Clemson hung 21 points on the Bulldogs in Saturday evening's opening half to secure a tie score, the concerns that last year would become this year were as heavy as the wet blanket masquerading as oxygen throughout Sanford Stadium.
To make matters worse, the Tigers were dominating the stat sheet, having piled up 276 yards to 113 for the home team. Without Georgia running back Todd Gurley's individual brilliance in the opening half -- a 100-yard kickoff return for a score and a 23-yard scoring run -- the Bulldogs almost certainly would have been in serious trouble.
But then new Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt made an adjustment.
"Defensively in the second half, we took a little pressure off our corners by not playing as much man coverage," head coach Mark Richt said. "Jeremy did a good job of making the change. They moved the ball some on us, but after a little while we shut that down as well."
They shut it down so well that Clemson was held to one first down and 15 yards in the final 30 minutes. By comparison, Georgia gained 346 yards and 13 first downs in the second half on its way to a 45-21 win.
"We just communicated a lot better tonight," said Bulldogs free safety Corey Moore. "Last year we over-communicated. We thought too much. Tonight we just went out there and played. But we also played as one. I can't do anything without my teammates. None of us can."
Todd Grantham was the Georgia defensive coordinator a season ago before moving on to Louisville. After much success early during his four-year stay at UGA, his defense finished 45th nationally last autumn, including the memorable last-second collapse at Auburn that led to a 43-38 loss when two defensive backs failed to bat a fourth-down pass to the ground, the ball instead bouncing high into the air and becoming a Tigers score.
Enter Pruitt, who was the defensive coordinator for Florida State last season when the Seminoles won the national championship.
Not that Moore believes Pruitt's defense stopped the Tigers' offense all by itself.
"It makes a big difference when you've got Todd Gurley running the ball," Moore said. "That eats up clock. It gives the defense some rest over there. When they can run the ball like that, it makes our job a lot easier."
There have been times of late when it's almost seemed as if the UGA offense and defense didn't get along, one silently blaming the other for defeats, especially last year's Auburn loss.
But Saturday night, victory won, it seemed the opposite. In fact, Gurley spent some time in the defenders' huddle, encouraging them during each break in play.
"It's always good to see a defensive guy in the offensive huddle," he said. "So when they can see an offensive guy in their huddle I think they get more pumped up and start feeling more confident. They know the rest of the team is there with them and they get after it."
The Bulldogs now have a week off to get ready for a road game at South Carolina on Sept. 13.
"We had a few hiccups in the first half," Moore said. "But we looked past it, communicated better and played our game. We just have to get better from here."
And hope the Georgia running backs keep getting them the rest they need.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.