No more knocks against Bulldogs after Stetson Bennett lifts them to victory

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart urges his defense during the 4th quarter against Kentucky in a NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, in Athens.   “Curtis Compton /”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart urges his defense during the 4th quarter against Kentucky in a NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, in Athens. “Curtis Compton /”

There were two knocks against the 2021 Georgia Bulldogs during their rise to No. 1 this season. One was legitimate: Georgia hadn’t met its high standards running the ball. The other was a matter of circumstance: Stetson Bennett hadn’t needed to pass the Bulldogs to victory in a tight game. Georgia’s defense has been so good that none of that mattered much.

That changed Saturday at Sanford Stadium. The Kentucky Wildcats arrived in Athens billed as perhaps their best team since Bear Bryant coached them. They looked that way for a half. The Bulldogs gained a lead by mostly running the ball, but Bennett would have to make plays passing for them to keep it.

Those knocks against Georgia are no longer valid after this 30-13 victory. The Bulldogs ran for big chunks of yards against an unyielding defensive front. Bennett passed to put away 11th-ranked Kentucky after halftime. Georgia’s defense gradually squeezed the spirit out of Kentucky, as is its custom.

“They play tough in all three phases,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said of the Wildcats. “They don’t make mistakes. When you play a football team like that, you have to beat them methodically.”

The Bulldogs did it. Now they are off next weekend before going to Jacksonville to face Florida. The Gators stumbled at LSU on Saturday for their third loss. It’s a rivalry game so you never know blah, blah, blah. Let’s be real: Georgia should beat Florida and every other team left in its path on the way to the SEC Championship game.

It’s still not clear when Georgia quarterback JT Daniels (back) will be available. He’s missed the past three games. Maybe he’ll be ready after the off-week. The timetable matters less with each game that Georgia wins with Bennett.

Bennett was good against Auburn’s tough defense last weekend. He was even better against Kentucky. The Wildcats came into the game ranked fourth among SEC teams, with 193.7 passing yards allowed per game. Bennett finished 14-of-20 passing for 250 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions.

Bennett’s first touchdown pass (19 yards to James Cook) put Georgia ahead 7-0. His second touchdown pass (27 yards to Brock Bowers) pushed the lead to 21-7 less than three minutes after halftime. Bennett was 4-for-4 for 52 yards during Georgia’s field-goal drive for a 24-7 lead. After Georgia blocked a field-goal attempt at the end of the third period, Bennett found Bowers again for a 20-yard touchdown that ended Kentucky’s comeback hopes.

The Bulldogs had a 14-7 halftime lead that felt shaky even though they were getting the ball first after halftime. They pulled away by riding Bennett’s arm. He was 7-of-8 passing for 130 yards and a touchdown in the third quarter, then 2-of-2 for 44 yards and a touchdown in the final period.

“We kept hitting them with the pass, and we kept calling pass,” Bennett said. “It was a little bit more fun for me. We can be explosive when we want to, and we can run when we want to. It’s just about execution.”

The Bulldogs ran for 170 yards on 26 carries (sack yardage excluded). When they passed, Bennett was composed and accurate. If Kentucky’s defenders got too aggressive, Bennett lofted soft passes behind them to tight ends and running backs. Bennett did it while playing with a smaller lead than usual.

ESPN’s Bill Connelly noted that, over his first five games this season, Bennett attempted only 18 passes with Georgia leading by less than 14 points. Bennett had 10 such attempts by halftime against Kentucky. He needed only three passes after the break to stake the Bulldogs to a two-touchdown lead.

Georgia’s defense took care of the rest. Unlike last season’s meeting, the Wildcats tried to make plays passing. First-year offensive coordinator Liam Cohen mixed in some creative pass plays to complement physical runs. It was a good plan, but Georgia’s defense is just too good: Kentucky gained just 156 yards on 48 plays (3.3 average) and punted to end five of nine possessions before garbage time.

Kentucky scored a touchdown with four seconds left. Even that drive required 22 plays. It was a hard day for Kentucky’s offense. The Wildcats couldn’t score on their first four possessions and had to convert three third downs during their first touchdown drive. They stayed in the game because their defense was making it hard for Georgia, too.

The Bulldogs punted to end their first two drives. They got an opening when Kentucky, pinned near its goal line, went three-and-out and shanked a punt to gave Georgia a first down near midfield. UGA’s drive started with Bennett passes to Adonai Mitchell (10 yards) and Ladd MConkey (15).

The next three plays: 2-yard run, penalty and a fumble by Bennett. Georgia recovered the ball for a 9-yard gain, but Bennett was grabbing his right arm after Josh Pascal hit it as he passed. Bennett didn’t miss a play. On the next snap he zipped a short pass to Cook, who ran untouched for a 19-yard touchdown.

Kentucky netted two yards on its next possession before punting again. Having established that they could pass on their previous drive, the Bulldogs ran as they pleased on the next.

Second play of the drive: Kendall Milton for 35 yards down the left sideline. Next two plays: Bennett for 17 yards around right end and Cook slipping through a nice seam through the middle for 25 yards. Zamir White accelerated through an even bigger hole on the next play for a 24-yard score.

The Wildcats were down two touchdowns behind, facing the nation’s best defense, with the home fans in a frenzy. Kentucky quieted them by converting two third downs. Then officials ruled Georgia nose tackle Jalen Carter forced a fumble by quarterback Levis that was recovered by Georgia. It was changed to an incomplete pass after a replay review.

The Wildcats took advantage of that good fortune. They went on to score a touchdown that reduced their deficit to 14-7 3:53 before halftime. The Bulldogs seemed on the verge of burying Kentucky when Carter forced the would-be fumble by Levis. Now they were in a tight game after they’d bullied every opponent except Clemson, the only one of their foes to have a halftime margin of less than three scores before Saturday.

Smart said he knew the Bulldogs would be OK when he saw his players’ demeanor at halftime.

“The players were talking to each other, talking about composure, what can they do better,” Smart said. “No one was really rattled.”

The Bulldogs had no reason to worry. They knew that no opponent has done much against their defense. Bennett sizzled after halftime, and Georgia broke through with some explosive runs. There was nothing left to knock about the Bulldogs after this performance.