ATHENS – Georgia finally found a passing quarterback, and it was a good thing as the Bulldogs desperately needed one Saturday night to score a 31-24 win over Mississippi.

JT Daniels, making his first start and playing for the first time since transferring to UGA from Southern Cal in late May, ignited the Bulldogs’ struggling offense with 401 yards passing and four touchdowns. The winning score came on Daniels’ 40-yard touchdown pass to Kearis Jackson on third-and-20 with 9:50 to play.

Mississippi State, playing short-handed with only 49 scholarship players and 59 overall, had a chance to tie the game. But Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari sacked quarterback Will Rogers for a nine-yard loss on a fourth-and-5 play at midfield. The Bulldogs were able to close out the game in the victory formation.

The question du jour was, why in the world hasn’t Georgia played Daniels before now? The 6-3, 210-pound sophomore from Irvine, Calif., was medically cleared from a knee injury on Sept. 28, or the Monday before the second game of the season. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs’ offense has struggled mightily all season, particularly in the area of explosive pass plays.

Daniels’ passes were almost nothing but explosive. His touchdown passes went for 49, 40, 18 and four yards, but he also two other completions that went for 49 and 46 yards, 11 that went for 13 yards or more. Daniels’ overall ledger of 28-for-38 passing, includes four drops, two on back-to-back plays before the game winning TD. He was 8-of-13 on third down.

Daniels and freshman Jermaine Burton formed the “California Connection” with 8 catches for 197 yards and 2 touchdowns. George Pickens played for the first time since Oct. 24 and had 8 catches for 87 yards and a score. Jackson added 55 yards on four receptions, including the game-winner.

Daniels was asked if he could have envisioned such an outstanding performance in his first live-game action in 14 months.

“Absolutely,” he said. “It’s something you visualize and dream about. Putting up numbers is great and all and is something you want to do, but we weren’t even paying attention to numbers at all. It was just executing what Coach (Todd) Monken called and I think he dialed up a phenomenal game plan.”

Apparently, as Daniels, who started 12 games at USC, established career highs for passing yards and TD passes. Daniels also became the first Georgia quarterback to throw for more than 400 yards in a game since Aaron Murray passed for 415 against Auburn in 2013. Daniels is the only seventh Bulldog of all time to throw for 400 or more yards in a game.

As for why he hadn’t played until now, Daniels said it was simply “the coaches’ decision.”

“It’s just been a progression over time,” Daniels said. “I feel really good right now as far as knee health and overall body health.”

Smart, in his postgame news conference, was asked several times in different ways why he waited until Game 7 to unveil this former 5-star quarterback when Georgia’s offense had struggled so this season.

“I’ve been coaching football for 20, 25 years, and God knows Monken’s probably double me as old as he is,” Smart said. “There’s not a decision we made as coaches and as an offensive staff, with five guys I adore and think the world of. Maybe the question should be, ‘man, aren’t they glad they got JT here, when nobody thought we needed him?’ Would I have loved him to do the same thing against other teams? Absolutely. But the decisions we made we made on giving us the best opportunity to win.”

Regardless of why it took so long to unleash Daniels, the Bulldogs certainly were glad to have him Saturday night, particularly while struggling to contain Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense. Piloted a true freshman making his second start, the Maroon Bulldogs completed 41-of-52 passes for 336 yards and piled up 20 first downs. Georgia found itself trailing 17-10 with only 1:22 remaining in the first half.

The Bulldogs took over at their own 30, where proceeded to lead them on a 7-play, 70-yard scoring drive. Daniels’ 18-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Burton came at the end of a 52-second drive that was interrupted by a pair of holding penalties. Yet Georgia scored with 30 seconds to spare.

Daniels accounted for 204 of Georgia’s 211 total yards on 13-of-17 passing on the opening half. So the Bulldogs were confident about getting the ball to start the second half. Sure enough, Daniels made good on this possession, too. He hit Burton on a go pattern down the sideline with a 48-yard TD strike.

Daniels just shrugged when asked about recording so many explosive plays on Saturday.

“They were playing zero-high and one-high (safety) just like they showed on film,” Daniels said. “If you’ve got George Pickens and Jermaine Burton, if you’re not going to throw it up to them, don’t recruit them. George made me look good, Jermaine made me look good, Kearis makes me look really good when I underthrow and deep ball down the middle and makes a great play. If you’re going to give me one-on-one with those guys, I’m probably going to make you show me you can stop it.”

Mississippi State didn’t. But it did stuff Georgia’s run game. The Bulldogs managed just 8 yards rushing, a number exacerbated by Daniels’ three sacks. Zamir White led Georgia with 21 yards and a long run of 10.

“Yeah, but if you go back and study the tape, Zamir’s blitz pickups and Kenny McIntosh’s blitz pickups were big time,” Smart said. “They picked up blitzes that allowed JT to stay upright and make those downfield throws, and I’m really proud of those guys for that.”

Georgia would be well-advised to scrounge up a little more run game between Sunday and next Saturday’s game against South Carolina (2-6) in Columbia. But at least the Bulldogs know who their quarterback will be now and not have to decide it with another week-long, practice-decided decision.

“I’d say it’s fair to assume (Daniels will start) based on the way he played tonight,” Smart allowed. “But he’ll need to continue to work hard and do the things he’s done to stay in that position. But he’s certainly showed poise and confidence and did some good things.”