ATLANTA — Jeremy Pruitt came through for Alabama in the clutch.
The Crimson Tide’s outgoing 43-year-old defensive coordinator pushed all the right buttons and made the correct adjustments to stop the Georgia offense when it mattered most, as Alabama rallied to beat the Bulldogs 26-23 in overtime in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“If you keep playing, good things will happen and that’s what our guys did,” Pruitt said after the game Monday night, with his wife at his side. “They kept trying to find a way, and they did.”
Alabama coach Nick Saban tipped his cap to Pruitt’s defense, taking note of the unit’s elevated play in the clutch.
“[The] defense stepped up when they had to,” Saban said at his postgame news conference. “We didn’t do very well on third down in the first half, which really hurt us. But this is a great win. It’s a great team win.”
Georgia was 6 for 11 on third-down conversions in the first half, but Pruitt’s adjustments led to the Bulldogs going only 2 for 8 on third down the remainder of the game, including 0 for 4 in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart noted how Alabama slowed the Bulldogs run game in the second half, a byproduct of Pruitt going to more man-to-man coverage. Georgia averaged 4 yards per carry in gaining 97 yards on the ground in the first half. But in the second half, the Tide held the Bulldogs to 36 yards rushing on 21 carries — 1.7 yards per carry.
“It’s hard to run the ball against Alabama. It’s really tough. That’s what makes them great,” Smart said. “When it mattered most and counted most, we couldn’t close it out and run the ball for first downs, and it probably hurt us.”
Pruitt knows that establishing a strong front seven will be one of his first challenges on defense at Tennessee, and it didn’t get any easier when junior defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie declared for the upcoming NFL draft on Sunday.
Until now, Pruitt’s focus on helping the Tide win another championship has precluded him from spending much time delving into the details ahead.
When asked about his next press opportunity at Tennessee, Pruitt responded rhetorically: “Wednesday? I’m not sure about that, but I told them I’d do something as soon as this was over.”
Even after all the confetti had fallen to the turf at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Pruitt’s obligations to the Tide weren’t quite complete. In addition to the on-field embraces and conversations, the outgoing Alabama defensive coordinator worked his way through the locker room and shook hands with every Crimson Tide player.
Finally, Pruitt went to the coaches locker room to share off-the-record comments with his fellow assistants, expressing pride in their players and respect for the system Saban has put in place to win five national titles at Alabama. There was mutual respect for Pruitt, who accepted congratulations from players, coaches and observers, including a former boss who was waiting for him outside of the Alabama locker room.
Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M’s new coach and Pruitt’s boss when the pair won the 2013 national championship at Florida State, had some words of advice.
Pruitt smiled and listened to Fisher, turning to media with an eyebrow raised, “We’ll talk about this later.”
With that, Pruitt headed for the Alabama team bus, one final time.
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