Numbers tell story about Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

ATHENS — The national narrative these past two years has been that Georgia wins big despite playing Stetson Bennett at quarterback. That narrative no longer holds water.

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As is being made increasingly clear, the Bulldogs win because Bennett is their quarterback. That theory was proved yet again Saturday as Bennett, a sixth-year senior and former walk-on, led No. 1 Georgia on a fourth-quarter comeback against Ohio State that erased a 14-point deficit and ended in a 42-41 victory when the Buckeyes missed a final-seconds field-goal try.

The late-game heroics resulted in a fourth consecutive postseason MVP designation for Bennett. That includes two College Football Playoff semifinals, the 2022 CFP Championship game and last month’s SEC Championship game win over LSU.

Against the Buckeyes, Bennett actually outdueled fellow Heisman Trophy finalist C.J. Stroud, who similarly could not lift his team to victory in the game’s final minute. Both quarterbacks completed 23 of 34 passes, and Stroud tossed four touchdowns to Bennett’s three. But Bennett passed for 50 more yards (398) and also ran for a score, which was his eighth this season.

And, of course, his team won the game.

Bennett will duel another Heisman Trophy finalist Monday at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. TCU’s Max Duggan finished second in balloting for college football’s most prestigious award.

“Max is an awesome dude,” said Bennett, who spent time with the TCU quarterback in New York the second weekend of December. “… Just a bunch of dudes hanging out.”

With Saturday night’s victory, Georgia’s “dude” improved to 28-3 as the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback, including 27 of the past 28. That does not include him coming off the bench in Georgia’s first game of the 2020 season, when he also led the Bulldogs to a come-from-behind victory over Arkansas.

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Two of Bennett’s three losses have come to top-four teams from Alabama, one in last season’s SEC Championship game and the other on the road in Tuscaloosa in 2020. His other defeat came against No. 8 Florida that same season, but only after Bennett suffered a dislocated shoulder while delivering a first-quarter touchdown pass that gave the Bulldogs a 14-0 lead.

But Bennett’s best work has come at crunch time of Georgia’s biggest games. That was on display in the fourth quarter of the national championship win over Alabama last January in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, and it was again at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday night.

Bennett himself has a hard time explaining it.

“At the end of games, I don’t know, it kind of frees you up,” he said in the postgame glow of Saturday’s semifinal. “You’ve just ‘got to,’ otherwise we’re going to lose. So, I don’t know.”

In Georgia’s defining scoring drives against Ohio State – which included one play to end the third quarter – Bennett completed 11 of 13 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns. But the statistic that stands out the most is of the bottom-line variety.

Bennett is the only quarterback whose team trailed by 14 or more points in the fourth quarter of a College Football Playoff game that won. The overall record of the previous teams in that situation: 0-19.

After the game, coach Kirby Smart compared Bennett with “Cool Hand Luke.” While the metaphorical reference to the 1967 movie starring Paul Newman may escape the younger set, the point is well understood that Bennett is at his best in the clutch.

“I think it’s his mental disposition,” Smart said Tuesday. “He doesn’t think of the moment any different than the first quarter. He doesn’t feel that. He is a processor, a deep thinker, and he just goes through the process of what he’s going to do and he doesn’t let the moment affect him.”

Three years after returning to Georgia from a stint in junior college, the evidence of Bennett’s quarterbacking ability is starting to pile up like a lake-effect snowdrift in Buffalo, N.Y. As the Bulldogs prepare for another appearance in the national championship game, let’s review:

  • Bennett needs only 11 yards to become the first quarterback in Georgia history to top 4,000 yards of total offense in a season. At 3,989 yards, he already owns the school record.
  • He needs 71 yards passing to become the all-time passing leader and 177 to become UGA’s first 4,000-yard passer.
  • He already owns school records for pass completions in a season (292) and passer rating over a season (176.7 from last year).
  • If the Bulldogs attempt 10 passes against TCU, he’ll have the season record for that statistic as well.

There are more obscure ones that he’s on track for, such as:

  • UGA and SEC record for average gain per play for career – 8.32 (held by Johnny Manziel at 8.30).
  • UGA career passer rating – 159.02.
  • Average gain per pass attempt for career – Currently 9.05.

It goes on from there, actually. The names that will be listed below Bennett’s in Georgia’s permanent record will include Aaron Murray, Eric Zeier, David Greene, Matthew Stafford and Jake Fromm, among others. Pretty cool for a kid who grew up in Pierce County pretending to be the Georgia quarterback while playing in his backyard.

Don’t bother updating Bennett on his stats, though.

“I’d say I’m as updated as I want to be,” he said matter-of-factly. “Not yet. We’ve still got ... one more game left. All that stuff will still be there after that if I do want to look at it eventually. But now’s not the time.”

That in-the-moment attitude is what has made Bennett the stuff of legend. That goes for his teammates, too. They’ve also marveled at the accomplishments and moments that Bennett has compiled before their eyes.

But with Ohio State barely in the rearview mirror and TCU directly ahead, nobody dressed in a Georgia uniform is ready to talk nostalgia.

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“I’m not sure if he can come back and play again next season. We’d take him, for sure,” sophomore center Sedrick Van Pran joked. “But his legend isn’t over. We have one more game to play, and we look forward to it.”

Said senior running back Kenny McIntosh: “He’s got one more game to get, then y’all can call him a legend. He’s already a legend, but you can’t call him that yet because the job’s not done. Not right now.”

The truth is, self-deprecation – and self-analysis – also are defining traits for Bennett. Saturday’s fourth-quarter comeback, he said, was preceded by “a 30-minute period there where I just played bad football. So, we’ve got to fix that.”

A couple of national pundits zeroed in Saturday on some postgame comments from Smart about Bennett that fell far from flattery. Bennett said he appreciates the objective lens through which Smart and offensive coordinator Todd Monken coach him and that it’s part of what makes him – and Georgia – successful.

“We’re trying to be perfect,” Bennett said. “We’re trying to do everything we can to make every play work perfectly, and when it doesn’t, we’re not happy. That’s why I trust my coach. It doesn’t really matter what other people hear on the outside because I know there’s truth there. And he’s right. I do need to play better.”

That statement, above all, underscores why Georgia has been so good under the overachieving former walk-on. Notably, he’s 25 years old and has been playing college football for six years now. But what he hasn’t done is rest on his laurels at any stage.

His progress as a quarterback has been built upon exponentially year after year. Sure, there’s a little gunslinger moxie mixed in there, but that’s a product of compounded confidence based on previous successes.

It’s the real-time, incremental improvements made beyond the prime-time glare in practice week-to-week that have made Bennett into the quarterback the world will watch on the biggest stage – again – Monday night. If he helps the Bulldogs pull off back-to-back national titles, statistics won’t be needed to validate Bennett’s legacy among Georgia quarterbacks.

“I don’t know, I try to see things for what they are, and I don’t let people tell me what they are,” Bennett said. “I try to figure that out on my own. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of that.”