Bennett’s final numbers: 17-for-29 for a game-high 191 yards and a touchdown. He displayed his usual athleticism on rollouts. He zipped some throws into tight windows. One could feel his famed moxie at times.
“I thought it was all right,” Bennett said. “I thought there were some boneheaded plays I made, and I thought there were some good plays I made. We bounced back a few times from some lost yardage plays. We did pretty good on third downs. Didn’t turn the ball over, even though I tried to a few times. Have to clean that up a little bit. But I thought it went all right. It’s hard to say without watching tape.”
Unlike his last appearance in Inglewood, Bennett wasn’t playing for any hardware. He’s simply trying to secure the Rams’ No. 2 quarterback role. That’s why there was value in this exhibition, even though NFL preseason games are less intense than any Kirby Smart-led practice.
In the national championship, Bennett played what Smart called his greatest game. He went 18-for-25 for 304 yards and four touchdowns. He added three rushes for 39 yards and two scores. Georgia removed him in the second half to an ovation.
Rather than exit early, Bennett had a late entry Saturday. Five-year veteran Brett Rypien started the game, a nod to his seniority, and he’s competing against Bennett for the No. 2 job behind Rams starter and former Bulldogs great Matthew Stafford.
The Rams’ offense was uninspiring under Rypien, though it wasn’t entirely his fault. The team had achieved little in his three drives and failed to convert a third down (Rypien finished 3-for-6 for 11 yards).
Then the Rams summoned Bennett at the 9:40 mark of the second quarter. It won’t surprise any Georgia fan to hear the team’s energy shifted.
Bennett engineered a touchdown drive, even though it required some help. His first pass was nearly a pick six, but the defender dropped it. He missed on his next throw, but a defensive penalty extended the drive. The Chargers almost had an interception on Bennett’s next attempt.
“I just don’t think about it,” Bennett said. “Just, ‘Thank you for not catching that’ and onto the next one.”
Finally, on a third-and-6, Bennett connected with Puka Nacua for a 17-yard gain to the Chargers 25. Later, after a touchdown run was nullified by a penalty, the Rams had second and goal from the 11.
In section 245, Bennett’s little brother Knox was pleading for the quarterback to target Nacua. Bennett first threw a fade to Camren McDonald that fell incomplete. Then he heeded Knox’s advice, firing a bullet between two defenders to connect with Nacua in the end zone.
Several members of the Bennett family unleashed emphatic cheers while recording the throw on their phones. Bennett’s father, Stetson Bennett III, watched as text after text popped up on his screen. The Bennett support system covers the distance between Georgia and California.
“So to see your little boy — literally at 3 years old you’re in the yard teaching him how to throw and watching Peyton Manning do his hand drills when we’re watching football at night — to get to watch him run out on this field and throw his first touchdown pass, it’s a testament to how good the Lord is,” Bennett III told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution moments after the score.
Among those who applauded with family members: Sam Duggan, brother of former TCU quarterback Max Duggan, who was on the short end of the championship game. While Bennett and Duggan were opponents that evening, the two signal-callers and their families developed friendships dating back to the Heisman Trophy ceremony weekend in Manhattan last December. Duggan, as fate would have it, landed with the Chargers.
“Congratulations, you guys must be so proud,” Sam exclaimed to the family while briefly embracing each of them. The Bennetts rooted for Duggan, too, but he had a quiet night (2-for-3 for 19 yards).
For those counting, the throw to Nacua marked Bennett’s seventh touchdown at SoFi Stadium this year and his unofficial first in the NFL. It capped a 16-play, 75-yard drive. Bennett remained at quarterback for the rest of the night, leading the Rams to 10 more points.
There were rookie mistakes, like holding the ball too long on a sack — he was taken down three times — or making what Bennett described as a few boneheaded plays. The performance was overall impressive once he shook early nerves.
“I thought he did a nice job,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “There were situations where you could see the athleticism where he escaped. ... I thought he did a good job being able to exhaust some of his progressions. I think I saw him lean over to me and give me the money sign — you guys (reporters) will have to ask him about that.”
Bennett laughed when a writer mentioned the money sign: “Don’t start that. No, I didn’t. I did not give him the money sign.”
The Rams scored their second touchdown late in the third quarter. Bennett went 3-for-5 on the drive, hitting a trio of passes for 17, 12 and 19 yards, respectively (“I thought he got into a rhythm,” McVay said). He pitched the ball to running back Royce Freeman for a 3-yard score.
“I thought Bennett did well,” Freeman told the AJC. “I didn’t really feel that (he was nervous). But if he was, it was only natural. His first game, going out there for all of us, just wanting to do best. Being in the huddle with him, trying to rally the guys, we made some plays happen.”
Bennet exhibited many of the qualities that made him such a hit for Georgia, from his play to his charisma. As McVay said, “You could see some of the things that excite us about him.” Bennett won’t need to be starter quality immediately. The Rams drafted him to be a backup, and they’re as curious as fans whether he proves to be anything more. Patience is necessary for everyone involved.
“Just keep getting better and eventually something good is going to happen,” Bennett told the AJC last week. The unofficial road to “eventually” began Saturday.