With 10 minutes left in the half, Smart turned to Stetson Bennett, a junior serving his second stint at Georgia. (He transferred after his freshman season to a JUCO in Mississippi. Then he transferred back.) It’s hard to imagine any Bulldogs fans – except maybe his parents, both UGA grads – who viewed Bennett the quarterback of their dreams, but here he was in Week 1, his team trailing 7-2 on the road against an Arkansas team that was beginning to believe it might shock the world.
At halftime, the nation’s No. 4 team trailed 7-5 and was that close only after Bennett led Georgia’s first semi-competent drive of the season to give a walk-on kicker the chance to make a field goal at the first-half horn. Welcome to SEC football in a pandemic year. Take a gander at the mighty conference that delayed its start by three weeks. Feast your eyes on the 2020 Bulldogs, who looked as if they had never practiced. They’d amassed 98 yards in penalties; they’d gained only 118 yards.
Said Smart, asked why he’d switched quarterbacks: “We’re struggling offensively, and we needed to change some things up. There’s some things Stetson can do well. He’s different from D’Wan.”
Bennett’s first possession fizzled when tailback Zamir White ran into teammate Ben Cleveland on fourth-and-1. The next yielded the half-ending field goal. The next saw White begin to ramble – you had to wonder how long Todd Monken, the new offensive coordinator, would need to figure out that pounding the ball is allowed – but ended when James Cook fumbled. That led to an Arkansas field goal, and everyone who took the Razorbacks and the points was feeling fat and sassy.
Then the game changed. Bennett changed it. He overcame a 12-yard loss because of another botched snap by finding George Pickens open at the left pylon. It had taken the Bulldogs 36 minutes to nose in front, but now there was no holding them back. Bennett converted a two-point conversion by diving for the right pylon. Then Georgia blocked a punt. Bennett hit tight end John FitzPatrick to make the score 20-10. Then Feleipe Franks, once an excitable Florida quarterback, threw a terrible pass that a grateful Eric Stokes returned for a touchdown.
Georgia had scored 22 points in three minutes, seven seconds. Before our eyes, the Hogs had gone from live underdogs to dead ducks. Another interception, this by Richard LeCounte on a flea-flicker, showed how desperate they’d become. Bennett and White drove Georgia to yet another touchdown, and here we had to remind ourselves that this same team had just worked an entire without managing even one. By then, Bennett had completed 20 of 29 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns.
Mathis would return with 8:49 remaining and the Bulldogs leading by 24 points. That possession was snuffed by a holding penalty. By then, though, it didn’t matter. Georgia was 1-0, and – let’s be honest –being 0-1 with a loss to maybe the worst team on the schedule could well have wrecked this season. That didn’t happen. Maybe it was never going to happen. But this was a game going wrong until Smart turned to Bennett.
Asked afterward how it felt to lead Georgia to such a victory, Bennett said: “Nice. Better than not doing that.”
Said Smart: “We’ll decide how we’re going to go forward. Not all of those things were D’Wan’s fault. We’ve got to get better. That’s for sure.”
Someone has to start at quarterback against Auburn next week. Maybe Daniels will get the go-ahead one of these days. Maybe Mathis will find his footing. But this much we know already: When in doubt, there’s Stetson Bennett.