ATHENS – What in the world is wrong with Georgia’s passing game?
That’s a question being uttered throughout the Bulldog Nation. More like muttered, really, seeing how the Bulldogs (6-0, 3-0 SEC) enter Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt ranked No. 1 with an average margin of victory of 28.8 points.
Nevertheless, a query was directed to coach Kirby Smart. Specifically, he was asked what’s the deal with quarterback Stetson Bennett, who hasn’t thrown a touchdown in three games and has an interception to go with four sacks in the same span?
“I feel great about Stetson as a passer, always have,” Smart said during his weekly briefing Monday. “He does a tremendous job seeing the field. He does a great job going through his reads. He’s got great arm talent. He can throw touch passes. He can anticipate throws as good as anybody in terms of anticipating a guy getting open while he’s getting pressure. I’ve seen him repeatedly do that here. He’s done a good job in the passing game, so, I’m very pleased with where he is.”
Granted, Bennett’s numbers this season are nothing at which to scoff. He has completed 69.4% of his passes for five touchdowns and one interception. But this latest stretch has left a lot to be desired.
Bennett’s completion percentage of .658 in the past three games is nothing to be ashamed of while encountering better defenses. And the passing production numbers aren’t particularly alarming, averaging 264 yards over that stretch as the team placed more emphasis on running the ball.
But the truly distressing art of Bennett’s worksheet are the growing pile of missed opportunities. To wit:
- On Georgia’s seventh possession, Bennett overthrew tight end Brock Bowers, who was five yards behind safety Zion Puckett on a go-route for what would’ve been a walk-in TD.
- Next play, Bennett was too high and hard with a pass for Bowers in the midst of three defenders, with Kenny McIntosh running free down the numbers along the north sideline.
- Third down same series, Bennett’s pass caught by Dominick Blaylock was off target to the left, drawing the receiver out of bounds.
- On Georgia’s 10th possession, at the end of the second quarter, Bennett’s pass for a diving Ladd McConkey was slightly overthrown. The ball went between McConkey’s hands, and the receiver may have slowed just a tad to accelerate past the defender. But, again, his target was five yards behind the defense.
- Late in the game, Bennett missed wide-open tight end Oscar Delp for what also could’ve a “chunk play,” if not another score.
“You hit any one of those ... and all we’re talking about is how explosive we were,” Smart said after the game. “We’ve got to try and hit some of those.”
Bennett had similar overthrows against Missouri, when he completed a season-low 55.8% of his throws. In two such cases in the second quarter, the Bulldogs had to settle for field goals rather than touchdowns in an eventual 26-22 win.
To be clear, Bennett is trying. Maybe too hard.
“Those are the worst ones, when you see them open and you throw it, and you think you’re throwing it well, and then they don’t hit,” Bennett said. “We’ve got to fix that.”
Alas, Bennett was making a lot of those same throws early in the season. He averaged nearly 15 yards per completion in the opener against Oregon. That number when up to 17.8 yards while throwing far fewer passes against South Carolina. Not coincidentally, the Bulldogs averaged 48.5 points in those two games.
But Bennett’s pass-efficiency rating has been on a steady decline since. It has sunk to 150.2 – or eighth in the SEC – after he led the league through the first three weeks.
“There’s no reason,” sophomore receiver Jackson Meeks said. “You know, it’s SEC football. Every game you go out there you know it’s going to be tough. We’re just listening to ‘Coach Monk’ (offensive coordinator Todd Monken). He’s calling the plays, and we’re just doing what we’re told to do.”
There are several silver linings to this cloudy report. One, seasons are not static. They are a continual series of fixes and adjustments. Hence, a rushing game that seemed non-existent in the early going was consistently dominant against Auburn a week after finishing strong against Missouri.
Likewise, Vanderbilt could provide some salve for the Bulldogs’ aerial pursuits. The Commodores (3-3, 0-2 SEC) enter Saturday’s game at Sanford Stadium ranked 123rd nationally in pass defense and 111th in allowing pass plays of 10 or more yards.
Smart this week dismissed the notion that Bennett’s passing may be affected by a shoulder injury. Mentioned by CBS analysts during Saturday’s broadcast, Bennett was taken down hard on a called run play in the third quarter against Missouri. But both Bennett and Smart insisted that had not altered the quarterback’s throws or impeded his practice repetitions.
Besides, the issue seems to have more to do with throwing too far or off target than being unable to make certain throws. Pressure also has been factor, as in the kind being applied from the defense, not that which might be coming from between the ears.
Bennett has been sacked four times in the past three games as opposed to one in the first three. And opponents’ quarterback hurries are up significantly recently, too, with 11 in the last two games.
The aim is for Georgia to get all that tightened up before the season’s stretch run to starts Halloween weekend against Florida and will be games against Tennessee, Mississippi State and Kentucky in succession.
“Yeah, we have things to clean up, but that’s football,” Bennett said. “We’re not perfect. We want to be, but we shouldn’t kill ourselves if we’re not. I have things to get better at — a million things. But just beat Auburn; we should be happy.”
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution