Who would ever believe this statement to be true: Stetson Bennett jogged on to the field as the starter for the Georgia Bulldogs against the No. 7 ranked Auburn Tigers. Bennett’s confidence and poise showed in his first start ever as a Bulldog. En route to a 27-6 victory, Bennett nicknamed ‘The Mailman’ proved his worth as he led the Bulldogs in their thumping of the Tigers on Saturday night.
To Auburn’s chagrin, Georgia looked like the more complete team Saturday night between the hedges. It was a total effort from the Bulldogs from all three units. Georgia looked like a completely overall different team than what viewers witnessed last week in Fayetteville.
“First of all, give Georgia credit,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said in his postgame press conference. “A very good football team. They won the line of scrimmage. We really got whipped on all three phases, we got out coached. You look at first downs, they averaged seven yards, I think we had two third down conversions. Once again, we just had trouble getting off the field.”
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart was still less than impressed with the performance his team displayed.
“I thought we showed improvement. We left a lot of plays out there,” Smart said. “I thought we played really hard defensively but sloppy on third down. I thought offensively, when we play clean, meaning we don’t have a busted assignment, a penalty, or somebody doesn’t know what they’re doing, we do well; but we can go backwards as quickly as we can forwards offensively, and we probably left more out there.”
Georgia fans didn’t have to wait long for their team to start producing on offense in comparison to last week’s performance. Both teams started with three-and-outs, but it was Georgia who struck first on their second possession.
Facing a third-and-long, Bennett led the Bulldogs down the field by completing a 17-yard pass to receiver Kearis Jackson. Redshirt sophomore tailback Zamir White then burst through Auburn defenders for a seven-yard gain, which put Georgia inside the Auburn 10-yard line. Following a four yard loss, Bennett connected with White leaving the Bulldogs on the Auburn one-yard line. White punched it in for six on the next play, followed by a Jack Podlesny made PAT.
Georgia’s defense continued to dominate forcing Auburn to a second straight three-and-out. The Bulldogs applied pressure and kept Tigers’ quarterback Bo Nix running for his life as he failed to complete a pass. Georgia’s defense also was able to stuff Nix on the ground, too. Junior nose tackle Jordan Davis and senior inside linebacker Monty Rice were able to keep Nix contained, while applying the pressure.
James Cook started off the next drive with three consecutive runs totaling 18-yards while White followed that up by bursting through the hole for a 17-yard gain. Bennett hit Demetris Robertson and Jackson on a pair of throws to get Georgia inside the Auburn five-yard line. Georgia was unsuccessful on three consecutive pass attempts to set up Podlesny for a 21-yard field goal. That gave Georgia a 10-0 leave with four minutes to go in the first quarter.
Georgia’s offense looked more up-tempo in the first quarter, and Bennett agreed.
“Yeah, I think Coach [Todd] Monken does a great job knowing when we need to go fast and knowing when we need to go slow,” Bennett said after the game. “We know what we’re going to do. We know we will be able to go fast. We are hopefully in better shape than everyone else. So, whenever the time comes that we need to go fast we can execute.”
Auburn’s offense looked like it was finally starting to move the ball, but couldn’t complete a short third-down conversion. The Tigers took a delay of game penalty on fourth down with Nix and the offense still on the field. That five play, 22-yard drive was Auburn’s last of the first quarter as it was all Georgia leading by ten.
Georgia’s offense was very balanced in the first quarter finishing with 65 yards through the air and on the ground, respectively. Bennett finished the first quarter completing 50 percent of his passes for 65 yards, while White led the team in rushing with 41 yards on eight attempts. Bennett’s composure and poise in the first quarter showed as he completed several key passes on third-down. That cool, calm and collected attitude by Bennett continued in the second quarter the Bulldogs.
Bennett and the offense’s hot start didn’t surprise Smart one bit.
“[Stetson’s] not surprising me, no,” Smart said. “You know, it’s a tough situation where I can recall the day we decided to offer him to take him back and we had to fight, scratch, and claw to get him to come back, and I’m certainly glad we did. It was an interesting decision because we had an interesting dynamic on our team, and we felt like what we knew of Stetson would be a productive player and a good player.
The Bulldogs started the first play of the second quarter on their own 39-yard line. Bennett hit freshman receiver Jermaine Burton for a 14-yard gain that got the drive going. White then ran the ball with confidence and that set up Georgia right outside the Auburn 20-yard line. Facing another third down, Bennett found George Pickens for his first touchdown pass on a 21-yard completion. That put Georgia up 17-0 with 11:08 remaining in the first half.
The Georgia defense kept the heat on Nix as they forced another three-and-out on Auburn’s next drive. The main highlight of the second quarter was when Bennett hit Jackson on a 49-yard bomb that set up White’s second touchdown to give Georgia a 24-0 lead. That six-play possession was Georgia’s quickest scoring drive in the game up to that point.
The Tigers were finally able to get on the board late in the second quarter with a field goal by Anders Carlson. The Tigers finished the first half with only 81 yards of total offense, with 54 of them being through the air. That stout Georgia defense was able to get pressure on Nix the entire first half and keep running back Tank Bigsby contained.
On the other hand, Georgia gained 288 yards of total offense in the first half. Last week, Georgia had 387 yards against the Razorbacks in the season opener.
“It wasn’t an evolution of the offense, it was an execution of the offense,” Smart said. “It really boils down to our ability to execute and not shoot ourselves in the foot..They had one more game under their belt, that probably helped, (and) we executed at a higher level, which we didn’t do against Arkansas.”
Even though Georgia started out hot right out of the gate, Smart said he didn’t think his team finished well.
“I didn’t think we finished well, I thought we had four or five missed sacks and just couldn’t get him on the ground, credit his athleticism,” Smart said. “We don’t usually give up a lot of third downs, and 7 of 16, we don’t meet our goal..The first drive of the second half was not up to our standard.”
Georgia picked up right where it left off on defense on the opening drive holding Auburn to a field goal. Bennett continued to look sharp connecting with tight end John FitzPatrick for a 18-yard completion, and then Jackson for a 21-yard gain.
Midway through the third quarter, Jackson had hauled in eight passes for 125 yards while averaging 15.6 yards per catch. Last season, he had just five catches for 72 yards. He led the team last week with six catches for 62 yards against the Razorbacks as well.
Jackson said earlier this week that his confident grew tremendously after his performance last week. Apparently that newfound spark lit a fire under Saturday night against Auburn.
“My job is just to get open no matter who’s the quarterback,” Kearis Jackson said. “It’s my job to catch the ball and get open. I’m still not satisfied though because I need to get into the endzone.”
Auburn’s long drive to end the third quarter resulted in Nix throwing an interception to Georgia’s Mark Webb inside Bulldogs’ territory. That turnover alone pretty much summed up Auburn’s offensive struggles all night. The Tigers inexperienced offensive line was dragged all night by Georgia’s front seven.
“It’s always good to not let somebody run it in, and if they want to score they have to throw it because I feel like it’s easier than just running on somebody and scoring. North and south is a quick way to the end zone,” Monty Rice said. “That just goes to show how our practice is paying off and the things that we work on each and every day, Monday to Thursday.”
It seemed like Azeez Ojulari and Adam Anderson were constantly after Nix. Ojulari finished the game with three tackles for loss, both Anderson and Jordan Davis had one sack apiece. Sophomore Nolan Smith had a strong showing as well in the Auburn backfield. Rice led the team with seven total stops, followed by Ojulari with five. Davis, Lewis Cine, Tyrique Stevenson, Nakobe Dean and Quay Walker all had four tackles.
Bennett was pulled midway through the fourth quarter and backup D’wan Mathis was his replacement. Still, no signs of USC transfer quarterback JT Daniels yet. Regardless, Bennett finished the contest completing 17 of 28 passes for 240 yards and one touchdown.
“Stetson has always stood out, ever since I’ve been here,” Jackson said. “He’s the starting quarterback now and has a major role. He’s doing a great job and is confident, it’s part of our job to help him do that.”
The Bulldogs totaled 442 yards on offense while holding Auburn to just 216 yards. Georgia had 202 total rushing yards with White leading the team in rushing with 88 yards on 19 carries with a pair of touchdowns. Cook ran the ball four times for 41 yards, followed by freshman Kendall Milton with six carries for 30 yards. Daijun Edwards finished with seven carries for 27 yards. As a whole, the Bulldogs averaged 4.5 per carry and 14.1 for completions.
“Coach Smart had preached to us about running the ball well,” said Zamir White. “..We just took it personal tonight and we went out there to play ball.”
Much of that success is attributed to Georgia’s stellar offensive line play against Auburn.
“They were terrible last week, so something must have happened,” Smart said, when asked about the offensive line’s improved play. “The Wizard of Oz came and saw them and gave them all courage and ability, and they played better.”
Bennett completed passes to seven different receivers, with Jackson hauling in a majority of them. Jackson finished with nine catches for 147 yards with Pickens following with two catches for 26 yards and a score. Jackson is now Georgia’s leading receiver with 209 receiving yards on the year.
“We did hit a couple of explosive plays but we’re still not where we need to be,” Jackson said. “There’s still room for improvement, but we’re going to enjoy this win and move on to Tennessee next.”
Bennett was asked after the game if he thought that the moment would ever come to when he would start a game. The question was followed by a humble response from the South Georgia native.
“It is not really my job to worry about that,” Bennett said. “If you think of things that broadly, you think about I was starting my first game, a game day, a top-10 matchup, then yeah it is going to be like ‘oh my goodness.’ But, no, I just go out every day and play football.”
He also said he knew earlier in the week that he was going to start.
“I had an idea that I was going to start,” he added. “Being able to be comfortable in the offense is easy because I am surrounded by such great players, and the offensive line gives me time. Coach Monken gives us great calls every time. So, the week helped because I was able to get reps with those guys. It is pretty easy to feel comfortable with those guys.”
Here is the video from Bennett’s postgame interview: