ATLANTA — Stetson Bennett informed that it might not be a good idea to pressure Georgia to end the season, after all.
The Bulldogs were quick to break down the common and plausible pregame storyline that former UGA defensive coordinator turned Oregon head coach Dan Lanning knew how to effectively attack Georgia’s offense.
Instead, Bennett split Lanning’s ducks, showing an improved version of his own and UGA’s passing game, starting with a 49-3 victory.
• Keep the All-American Brock Bowers within 2 catches
• Prevents any UGA game over 38 yards
• Catch up with Georgia
• Prevent any bulldog sacks
But Bennett showed on Georgia’s opening score — the first of seven TDs in a row — how the skills he’s improved in the offseason have outpaced the Bulldogs’ offense.
It turns out that Georgia State has been blessed with a coach in Lanning who understands the offense and Bennett’s previous shortcomings very well.
Those factors absolutely forced the Bulldogs out of their comfort zone.
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Kirby Smart loves to run, but he prefers to win, which forces him to improve and change.
Smart’s “expect the unexpected” pregame warning came into effect quickly when the Bulldogs’ offense behaved like a machine to reach Oregon’s 35-yard line.
“When he works inside,” ABC Network commentator Todd Blackledge said of Bennett on the telecast, “he’s really, really, really good.”
It turned out to be a foreshadowing comment, and viewers will soon see a turning point where Bennett’s game has expanded.
Facing the two and eleven, Bennett saw Oregon State linebacker and projected first-round pick Noah Sewell run over the free throw line and flash into his face.
Bennett dashed to the right quickly, got the Ducks’ best defender into a fumble, then rolled out and wisely tossed the ball.
It was a good decision, as Smart put it, “to live an extra day.”
Still, Georgia faces the kind of 3-point and 11-point situation that Bennett sometimes faced last season.
That’s when Bennett showed how more offseason work could pay off, dropping back and taking a strike down Marcus Rosemie-Jackson’s middle lane, the first of its kind. Dropped 12 yards.
Bennett threw a fairly deep pitch, but said he knew he needed to do some work on his footwork and improve his speed and timing on those secondary passes.
In the following race, Bennett got back on his horse and was pocketed after Oregon’s Keyon Ware-Hudson ran past Tate Ratledge.
Once again, Bennett showed the gesture of letting the veteran throw the ball instead of forcing it to pass.
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“Steyson does a great job of passing the perimeter, he’s elusive,” Lanning said, “so even if you put pressure on it sometimes, you don’t always get home.”
Coordinator Todd Monken saw early offensive line issues and called for a quarterback goalie on the perimeter, with Bennett reminding everyone of his running advantage with a 7-yard run.
In the ensuing game, a third drop in the red zone — another area in Georgia that was less than ideal last season — Bennett’s comfort and familiarity with the offense became more apparent.
Bennett, sitting in his pocket, quickly completed his progress, looking for Bowers to the right, then back to the left to find Adona Mitchell striding through the middle.
A game later, Rad McConkie ended the game near the field and scored his first touchdown to the cheers of Georgia fans.
Not only did the Bulldogs get their first blood in this so-called “duck hunt” opener, but they did it, and Bennett showed improvement in a once-deficit field.
Smart spoke in the spring about Georgia’s need for a run game to keep the game-action passing game going after Bennett struggled in a spring game that went 15-for-35 with two interceptions .
However, it was an opening game that not only allowed the offense to be uncohesive, but also passed the ball nine times in 12 games.
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Georgia led 28-3 at halftime, and after Bennett led two more scoring drives to open the second half, the coach gave him the day off.
“It worked today, but who’s to say we’re not going to run it 40 times next week,” Bennett said, setting the stage for an expected blowout win at FCS Samford next Saturday.
“It doesn’t matter if we throw 30 times today or run 40 times, (it) doesn’t matter what the job is…”
What’s important is that Bennett has proven that he can effectively handle the passing load against a talented opponent, making Georgia’s offense more dangerous than ever.
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