Even for Georgia, the Peach Bowl win was 1 of 1
ATLANTA — As the clock neared 1 a.m. on New Year’s Day, an exhausted Stetson Bennett IV sat in the bowels of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, trying to make sense of the game he just witnessed. After all, this was the 25-year-old quarterback who had been in college for decades, or so it felt. Bennett was 5 years removed from witnessing Georgia’s Rose Bowl comeback — wherein he played the well-documented role of scout team Baker Mayfield — and he was in the same building where “2nd and 26” devastated Georgia’s hopes at a national title. He had seen it all.
Or so he thought.
Down 14 in the 4th quarter of a Playoff semifinal was new. I mean, Bennett had rallied back in a regular season game — go back to the Mizzou game — and obviously he was 12 months removed from a 4th quarter comeback to take down Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship. But given the stakes and the flow of Saturday night’s Peach Bowl, it was fair to ask.
Had he ever been involved in a game like that?
“No, probably not,” Bennett said. “That game was … yeah. That was a special one.”
Special is an understatement. Georgia was supposed to be cooked. Finally. Repeat dreams over. It was a bad day for the Dawgs to have their worst defensive showing of the year. Ohio State was the buzzsaw who was rearing to cut through the previously unbeaten Dawgs, or so it appeared.
That is, until we got another chapter in the Bennett fairytale.
One 2-minute drill with a perfect pass to AD Mitchell for the go-ahead score and 1 missed Ohio State kick closed the book on a game that was equal parts entertaining and baffling.
How did Georgia pull that off? And how did the Dawgs earn their second consecutive national championship berth?
Down 14 with 10 minutes left was supposed to be a death sentence for a group who hadn’t trailed in the second half in 3 months. This was supposed to be Ryan Day’s “how do you like me now” moment wherein his game plan got the best of Kirby Smart, who couldn’t dial up the right coverage (UGA played man and zone) or pressures consistently to slow down CJ Stroud.
This was supposed to be Ohio State’s moment. Not Georgia’s. At least that’s what the vast majority of the second half felt like when Georgia trailed until the final 54 seconds.
As Noah Ruggles lined up for a 50-yard kick, that still appeared to be the case. Georgia’s comeback was going to fall short and Ohio State would prevail in a game for the ages. UGA players couldn’t watch. Kendall Milton said it felt like the 2020 Peach Bowl all over again, but this time, it was the opposing team attempting the make-or-break field goal. Kearis Jackson couldn’t watch, nor could Ladd McConkey. Well, sort of.
“It was watch, turn away, watch, turn away, watch, turn away,” McConkey said. “But I watched it. And it was a good feeling to bring in the new year right.”
Georgia escaped Atlanta with a victory. You could see the relief on Kirby Smart’s face. He spoke about the frustration of missing 4 sack attempts in the first half and how an overwhelming rushing advantage still had UGA somehow facing a halftime deficit. When Bennett spoke of an inadvertent backwards pass to McConkey that was ruled a fumble, Smart’s exasperated expression said it all.
So how did Georgia pull it off? The easy answer to that question is Bennett … combined with a little good fortune.
The good fortune was 2-fold. Let’s start with the fake punt that almost was.
Ohio State led 38-27 with 8:58 to play facing 4th and 1 from its own 34-yard line. As the Buckeyes got to the line of scrimmage, Smart barely got a timeout in as the ball was being snapped. Had Smart not been granted the timeout, Ohio State would’ve correctly executed a fake punt run to keep the drive alive and shave a few more minutes off the clock. But Smart recognized the formation and squashed Ryan Day’s attempt at a dagger of a trick play.
“They just were not in their traditional formation,” Smart said. “A lot of teams carry that speed break. They come up the line quick. Everybody’s lined up tight. And we’ve seen it in the SEC. A lot of teams carry it, and you try to practice it, but it’s another thing when they actually do it and execute it. So it was one of those gut reactions that I didn’t think that we had it lined up properly to stop it, so we called timeout.”
Part luck, part skill.
That’s the best way to describe what happened on the following play after Ohio State was forced to punt the ball back to Georgia while holding onto an 11-point lead. Georgia receiver Arian Smith, who runs a 10.1-second 100-yard dash, got behind the Ohio State secondary thanks in part to that blistering speed … and also because the Ohio State defensive back fell down. That was news to Smith, who caught Bennett’s pass and waltzed into the end zone to make it a 1-score game.
“I guess I made him fall,” Smith said. “I didn’t even know I made him fall … I realized I was open, but I didn’t realize I was that open.”
What was that route?
“That one was just, run fast. Made the dude fall. Dude can do things that people can’t do,” Bennett said. “Once I saw him, I think the whole sideline was standing up saying, ‘He’s open.’”
Yep. Also open? Georgia’s window to totally flip the momentum. That was the play that did it.
Never mind the fact that the Dawgs were torched by Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka, or that Bennett played what he called “30 minutes of bad football.”
Bennett’s 2-minute drill to win it included him going 5-for-5 for 67 yards. Of course it did.
“Where else would you rather be? Having the ball with 2 minutes left and if you score a touchdown, you win the game,” Bennett said. “I looked around and there was just a whole bunch of determined, strong stares from the all the dudes. It gave me confidence, it gave everyone else confidence and we drove down the field.”
Fire up the clichés about Bennett’s leadership and how he’s never rattled. Perhaps a 23-for-34, 398-yard, 4-touchdown showing (3 passing, 1 rushing) should put any last “game manager” clichés to rest.
“Hey, keep hating on him,” Jackson said, “but he’s gettin’ the job done.”
You could say the same thing about Georgia. No, it doesn’t have a defense as stingy as last year’s squad. Yes, it might’ve gotten a couple fortunate breaks to somehow survive Ohio State.
The road to repeat hasn’t been an easy one, despite what Georgia made it look like at times. Getting to 14-0 — and doing so in that fashion — brought a different emotion than even what we saw in the SEC Championship.
In the confetti-filled scrum, Kenny McIntosh ran around with a TV camera while donning the on-trend Georgia big hats. After accepting his Peach Bowl Offensive MVP Trophy, Bennett ran past the mob of people into the locker room. Smart took off his sweat-soaked visor and saluted the Georgia faithful who cheered him on just above the Mercedes-Benz Stadium tunnel.
In the stadium tunnel where players and coaches walked past, a little girl in Georgia gear held up a sign that read “you’re either elite or you’re not.” Georgia is certainly elite, even if the stress and frustration levels made one forget that for the majority of Saturday night in Atlanta. A week from Monday, the Dawgs will defend their title in Los Angeles against TCU. They’ll have 9 days to make adjustments, of which, there are many.
But on Saturday, only one feeling mattered amidst a night of mixed emotions.
“We’re goin’ to LA,” Smith said. “How can you not be excited?”