Stetson Bennett quiets the noise, makes beating Michigan look easy

As Stetson Bennett laid it out earlier this week, he doesn’t listen to his living-room critics. Why should he? Football’s not their field.

After all, the Georgia Bulldogs quarterback said by way of illustration, “I wouldn’t listen to myself if I was giving a speech on heart surgery.”

But mightn’t he now have won the right to speak even on that subject? For there Bennett was Friday night contributing greatly to the heart health of Bulldogs fans everywhere. They all could relax and enjoy the big early lead he provided them in the playoff semifinal against Michigan, suffering neither flutter nor fibrillation that so often comes with games this large. Georgia wins easily in the Orange Bowl, 34-11.

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Nearly four weeks after his two ill-timed interceptions against Alabama in the SEC Championship game cast him back into the pit of doubt, Bennett put up a nearly flawless first half against the Wolverines. It stands to date as his masterpiece, with a rematch with the Crimson Tide pending.

And it would be hard to argue that JT Daniels, the preferred man behind center when some feel like starting an argument, could have done better than this over the full 60 minutes of the second-biggest game any collegian plays: 20-of-30 passing, 313 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions.

Statement made, even if Bennett said he was not interested in making one.

“I didn’t go out there and play well today in spite of people,” Bennett said postgame. “I came out and played well and worked hard throughout the weeks we had off because my teammates needed me to do that, and we needed that to win.

“As far as a statement: That’s my goal every week to play that well.”

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

The last time the Bulldogs were in this semifinal game – the first day of 2018, against Oklahoma – Bennett was doing his best Baker Mayfield imitation as a scout-team quarterback. He said it was beyond even his own imagination then to picture himself where he was Friday night.

But, he added, “Every day from then until now you just go about your business and put your best foot forward and hopefully something works out.”

The quarterback of humble origins – former walk-on, former scout-teamer, nobody’s five-star recruit coming out of small-town South Georgia – had legitimate superstar flashes Friday.

The Bulldogs scored on each of their first five possessions, and each provided different examples to justify the faith the Georgia staff held in starting Bennett over the highly touted, big-armed Daniels. On Friday, Bennett proved the perfect instrument to fulfill offensive coordinator Todd Monken’s vision for this game.

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@

Georgia opening possession: Bennett demonstrated the rapport he has established with tight end Brock Bowers, hitting him on a 35-yard connection early and a 9-yard swing pass catch-and-run for a touchdown. He came out 4-for-4, throwing for 67 yards in an 80-yard TD drive. No red-zone issues here this night.

“That set the tone for the game,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said.

Second possession: He completed his next three passes as well, as efficient as a tankless water heater, before the Bulldogs get another touchdown via trickery, a Kenny McIntosh halfback pass.

Third: The talk about how Bennett gives this offense the added dimension of mobility was in full display. He churned out a 20-yard gain, sensing the fierce on-rushing Aidan Hutchinson and running away from the threat. No, Daniels doesn’t do that. He gets caught. The Bulldogs go on for a field goal and a 17-0 lead.

“You look at some plays he made out there with his feet, they couldn’t account for his mobility and some of the plays he made with his feet,” Smart said.

Georgia 34, Michigan 11

Fourth: Splitting James Cook out wide, the Bulldogs got a gift of a matchup. The speedy back blew by freshman linebacker Junior Colson for a 53-yard connection. Bennett quickly recognized it and laid the ball in Cook’s hands. A field goal ensued.

Fifth: Perhaps it’s time to lend Bennett a little more deep-ball respect. Just as he did on the throw to Cook, Bennett uncorked a perfect rainbow that found Jermaine Burton in stride for a 57-yard touchdown connection. That made the score 27-3 with 98 seconds left in the first half.

It was a perfunctory second half for Georgia, having scored all it needed and more in the first 30 minutes. The Bulldogs and Bennett had done all they could to whitewash the memory of that SEC loss to Alabama.

“I thought he performed at a really high level today,” Smart said of his chosen quarterback. “He’s been really focused the last couple weeks.”

“I think it’s really amazing to have a guy his age block out all the noise and focus harder. It’s almost like every time he hears noise, he focuses harder on the game plan and what he has to do to execute,” Smart added.

Next in 10 days is a rematch with Alabama, the wart that won’t go away for both the Bulldogs and Bennett. He is 0-2 against the Tide, completing 53% of his passes, throwing as many interceptions as touchdowns – five each.

At least the noise may be little less shrill before the College Football Playoff Championship game Jan. 10, given the hearts (and minds) Bennett won Friday.