5 things we learned from No. 1 Georgia’s win over Florida

Georgia wide receiver Kearis Jackson (10) celebrates his touchdown with Georgia wide receiver Adonai Mitchell (5) during the first half of an college football game, Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Jacksonville, Fla. (Stephen B. Morton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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Georgia wide receiver Kearis Jackson (10) celebrates his touchdown with Georgia wide receiver Adonai Mitchell (5) during the first half of an college football game, Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Jacksonville, Fla. (Stephen B. Morton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett got his fifth start of the season and fourth in a row Saturday against the Florida Gators. And while it was far from flawless, it was effective. The No. 1-ranked Bulldogs remained undefeated in a 34-7 victory and ultimately clinched the SEC East when Kentucky lost to Mississippi State 31-17 later Saturday night.

But overshadowed by all that accomplishment was a less-than-stellar offensive performance. The Bulldogs committed three turnovers on two interceptions and a fumble and were outgained by the Gators 355 yards to 354.

“Yeah, we didn’t play as well as we have been playing and that starts with me,” Bennett said. “We’ve got to get better, get back to the drawing board. But the good thing is we won 34-7. At the end of the day that’s all that matters.”

Bennett starting and playing the entire game was a somewhat anticlimactic ending to two weeks of mass speculation over who would play quarterback against the Gators. It became a debate when coach Kirby Smart reported that JT Daniels was able to practice full speed and without pain after being sidelined with a back injury since Sept. 25.

Smart said Daniels was fit enough to play, he just didn’t.

“We felt like he could play if he needed to,” Smart said. “JT practiced well. He didn’t feel like he had much pain during the week. He felt really good during the week. But we went with the decision of continuity. And JT has not been able to practice. He took a few reps last week and he took more reps this week. But when you go three weeks without taking reps that’s really hard to do.”

Bennett said that he was advised during the week that Florida was “going to be my game.” Daniels warmed up beforehand and a couple of times during the game on the sideline. He stayed engaged and interacted with Georgia’s offensive coaches and his fellow quarterbacks throughout.

“You know, I think this whole quarterback situation, if you want to look at this team in a nutshell, that’s it,” Bennett said. “I mean, we’re two guys who love this team. We have complete faith in both of us to go out there and play. Today on the sideline, JT’s giving me the coverages post-snap and telling me what’s going on. And when he’s playing, we help him out. So, everything about this team is about the team and not about the individual. It’s pretty cool.”

Bennett finished with 161 yards on 10-of-19 passing with a touchdown and two interceptions. He was sacked once for a loss of nine yards and ran the ball five times for 35 yards.

“At the end of the day, we went with continuity,” Smart said. “We think we have two really good quarterbacks. I’m very pleased with both guys. I’m very pleased with the way JT handled things today.”

Here are some other takeaways from Saturday’s win over Florida:

Smith stumps for Bennett

Nobody asked linebacker Nolan Smith about Bennett. He simply had something on his mind after the Florida game Saturday and he was going to share it, solicited or not.

“I want to say something about my quarterback, Stetson Bennett, the Mailman,” Smith said on the postgame Zoom with reporters. “Y’all call him a weak point. I read all the stuff the media writes. I know I’m not supposed to. But one thing about Stetson, he just works. He’s a blue-collar guy. When you talk about trusting a guy, I trust him because he works and puts his best foot forward every day. So, it may not look like it to y’all, but he’s getting the job done.”

Smith, a junior from Savannah, was getting the job done Saturday, too. He caused a fumble, recovered a fumble, intercepted a pass, had a tackle for loss and four tackles overall.

Recruiting matters

Smart and Florida coach Dan Mullen were asked similar questions about recruiting after Saturday’s game. Their answers might shed some light on why Georgia has won four of the past five in this series.

Mullen was asked if he thought the Gators were recruiting well enough.

“I don’t know. We just finished the game,” he said.

Smart was asked why he thought the Bulldogs had been recruiting so well.

“Because you have to,” Smart said. “Guys, if you don’t recruit, there’s no coach out there that can out-coach recruiting. I don’t care who you are. … If you don’t recruit, you don’t have a chance. Just go look at the best teams out there. They’ve got good football players. And that’s why I believe in recruiting.”

Recruiting victories over Florida were evident in the two-minute, three-touchdown onslaught Georgia executed at the end of the second quarter. Smith, who had an interception, forced fumble and fumble recovery during that run, was the No. 1 recruit in the nation in 2019 and chose the Bulldogs over the Gators coming out of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

James Cook, who scored on an 11-yard run during that stretch, was a 4-star running back out of Miami who chose the Georgia over Florida and FSU. On the play after Smith’s interception, Georgia’s Kearis Jackson hauled in a 36-yard TD pass. A consensus 4-star from Peach County, Jackson chose the Bulldogs over the Gators.

“You better always be recruiting because if you’re not, somebody else is,” Smart said.

Takeaway tally

Georgia’s primary defensive goal coming into Saturday’s game was to create more turnovers. That mission was accomplished as the Bulldogs had recorded two interceptions and fumble recovery. All three led to Georgia scores, including linebacker Nakobe Dean’s 50-yard pick-six.

Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, they also committed three turnovers on offense. So, it was a net-0.0 turnover margin on the day.

The Bulldogs are now plus-3 in turnover margin on the season and have scored 73 points off 13 takeaways. In the second half, Georgia running back Kenny McIntosh fumbled. Meanwhile, Bennett threw two interceptions that led and to seven points. Opponents have scored 27 points on 10 UGA miscues this season.

“Basically, our turnovers were not as costly as their turnovers,” Smart said.

But getting takeaways was a special point of emphasis for the defense this week.

“We had a guy stand up and show where the defense was ranked in almost every statistical category,” Smart said. “They’re ranked top two, top three (in everything) -- and then turnovers, it’s like 68th in the country (actually 70th). And that offends our guys. But I can’t say that’s why we got turnovers. I can only say that was the attempt to challenge their pride and it worked out this week.”

Zeus got loose

Zamir “Zeus” White became Georgia’s first running back to go over 100 yards rushing since the Missouri game last season. White went over the century mark on his last carry of the day – a 42-yard touchdown run with 1:57 remaining in the game. He finished with 105 yards on 14 carries.

White now has a team-leading 48 points scored on the season and he ranks fifth in the SEC in rushing TDs with eight. It was the fourth 100-yard game of White’s career.

Georgia tallied 193 rushing yards on 33 attempts on the day for a 5.8 average. Senior James Cook had an 11-yard TD and finished with 46 yards on 10 carries.

“I thought we were really successful running the ball and did a good job between the tackles, pounding the ball, play-action, boot-naked,” Smart said. “I thought (offensive coordinator Todd) Monken had really good openers and I thought we did a good job there.”

Big day for KJ

Georgia didn’t have a huge day throwing the football, but it was very productive for both variety and explosivity.

Bennett completed passes to 10 different targets against Florida, including six wide receivers. It was a particularly good day for Jackson, who led the Bulldogs with three catches for 59 yards and a 36-yard touchdown.

Jackson had been slow to get involved in Georgia’s passing attack while recovering from over-the-summer knee surgery. Earlier in the season, he was only returning punts. On Saturday, he finished with 97 all-purpose yards, including a 31-yard kickoff return and a 7-yard punt return.

Explosive passing plays were the order of the day. Darnell Washington, who had 41 yards on two catches, got 32 on one play. Fellow tight end Brock Bowers had the day’s longest reception, a 38-yarder that nearly went the distance.