Stetson Bennett rewrote Georgia’s script and became a legend

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Angelo Pizzo knows a thing or two about great underdog stories. He wrote the screenplays for “Hoosiers” and “Rudy,” two of the most iconic sports films of all time. He knows a good plot.

Pizzo, 75, sees plenty from Rudy Ruettiger — the extra who played three snaps in one game for Notre Dame in 1975 — to Stetson Bennett, the Georgia Bulldogs’ star quarterback.

“He’s like Rudy with more talent – ​​a lot more talent,” Pizzo said. “It takes a special person. It takes a special belief. You kind of have to work through all the logic that says, ‘You’re not that. Go play for Georgia State, not Georgia. He had that belief and saw things and felt things that no one else did.”

On Monday night, about 11 miles from Hollywood, Bennett put the finishing touches to a storied college career that even Pizzo couldn’t have written. The former extra, who left Georgia for a year to play junior college and then returned when the team needed him, led the No. 1 Bulldogs to a 65-7 victory over the No. 3 TCU in the College Football Playoff National. Championship presented by AT&T at SoFi Stadium.

Georgia became the fifth team to finish 15-0 and the first to repeat as national champions in the CFP era. The Bulldogs are only the fourth to meet since 1990; Nebraska (1994 and 1995), Southern California (2003 and 2004) and Alabama (2011 and 2012) were the others.

Bennett, 25, became just the eighth quarterback in the AP polling era to lead his team to back-to-back national titles.

Bennett’s last act was his opus. He completed 18 of 25 passes for 304 yards with four touchdowns and ran for two more scores. Bennett tied former LSU quarterback Joe Burrow for most responsible points in a CFP title game with 36. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, he is the only player in the last 25 years to have four passing touchdowns and two rushing scores in a game. against a top-five opponent.

“Stetson speaks for himself, the way he leads and prepares,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “His mental makeup is like a quarterback who believes he can hit every shot, and what he did tonight was truly amazing. He probably had his best game of his career, in my opinion. , with some of the checks he’s written, some of the decisions he’s made, really elitist.”

No one could have predicted that Bennett’s curtain call would come with about 13½ minutes remaining in the game. With Georgia leading 52-7, Smart called a timeout. Bennett hugged a few of his offensive linemen and tight end Brock Bowers, then the quarterback walked to the sideline, where he was greeted with another hug from Smart.

During the break, as the Redcoat Marching Band played, Georgia fans greeted Bennett by turning on their cell phones and waving their arms in unison.

“I said to all the guys, ‘What are we doing? Why don’t we have a game?'” Bennett said. “I was, like, they’re letting me out of here.”

It was a fitting tribute for a quarterback who started his college career impersonating Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield in bowl practices before playing the Sooners in the 2018 Rose Bowl and ended it as one of the two or three most accomplished players in Georgia football history.

“Whenever there is a conversation, he will be part of the discussion about who is the best player and quarterback in Georgia history,” said Buck Belue, who was the last quarterback before Bennett. to lead the Bulldogs to a national title in 1980. “I don’t see anyone else winning back-to-back titles. It’s like a royal flush. Who’s going to do better?”

A year ago, when the Bulldogs had a historically talented defense with five starters selected in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft, some critics wondered if they had won their first national title in 41 years despite being quarterback- back. Some Georgia fans, whether they admit it now or not, were ready for Bennett to move on so that younger quarterbacks like Carson Beck and Brock Vandagriff would have a chance to play.

On January 12, 2022, two days after throwing two fourth-quarter touchdowns to lead Georgia to a 33-18 victory over Alabama in the CFP title game, Bennett walked into Smart’s office and told him that he considered coming back.

“I’m trying to decide if I’m going to come back or go with the wind,” Bennett told his coach, according to Smart. “I don’t understand everyone telling me that I should just leave at sunset [and] to be the legendary quarterback who won a national title. It’s just not who I am. I don’t understand. Why should I do this when I have the opportunity to play again? Why don’t we go win it again?”

Smart, who knew the Bulldogs would lose 15 players to the NFL, wasn’t as confident as his quarterback.

“I kind of think, ‘Well, that would be nice, but we lost 15 draft picks,'” Smart said. “It may not be so easy this time. But Bennett believed Georgia would be pretty good again. “He was fully convinced that he wanted to come back and go against the mainstream,” Smart said. “He said, ‘I want to go play. I want to go play football and prove to people that it’s not a coincidence. We can do it. And he did everything he said he was going to do.”

This season, it was clear that Georgia would not have won a second national title without him. He was 7-0 against ranked opponents, throwing for 20 touchdowns with just three interceptions. During the regular season, he beat Bo Nix of Oregon, Anthony Richardson of Florida, Hendon Hooker of Tennessee and Will Levis of Kentucky, all of whom are considered potential NFL quarterbacks.

Bennett threw for four touchdowns in the first half of a 50-30 rout of LSU in the SEC Championship Game. He had two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter against Ohio State in the CFP Semifinals, including the game-winner against Adonai Mitchell with 54 seconds left, to bring Georgia back from a 14-point deficit in a 42-game win. -41.

Ironically, it was a quarterback who pushed Smart to open up his offense. During Smart’s first two seasons as coach at his alma mater, he built on what he learned in Alabama as defensive coordinator under Nick Saban. The Bulldogs ran the ball and played solid defense.

But when the Bulldogs were struggling to land coveted quarterbacks and game-changing wide receivers, Smart changed his philosophy. After the 2019 season, Smart shook up his coaching staff and hired offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who had just been fired by the Cleveland Browns.

“[Smart] wanted some structure, some NFL experience,” Monken said. “How explosive would you be? Maybe change the narrative. Just that you’re conservative, you don’t want to be explosive. You must have good skill players; you have to get quarterbacks. How do we do that?”

Eventually, Monken and Bennett became the perfect partnership, but it took a while to get there. Bennett only returned to the offense after Justin Fields moved to Ohio State, Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman pulled out and Southern California transfer JT Daniels pulled out. was injured.

Together, Monken and Bennett produced two of the most prolific offenses in Georgia history. This season, Bennett became the Bulldogs’ first 4,000-yard passer. In four CFP contests, he completed 67.8 percent of his passes for 1,239 yards and 12 touchdowns with one interception, and he had two points.

“He’s at the top — at the top,” Georgia offensive tackle Broderick Jones said when asked where Bennett ranks among Bulldogs players. “Stetson has done so much for this program that it’s crazy. Since he gave [the defense] scout is looking to play to throw winning balls. He did everything he could at the University of Georgia.”

Georgia receiver Ladd McConkey agreed.

“I think he’s the best,” McConkey said. “He won back-to-back national championships. He showed up in every way he could and did so much for this program. I think he should be the best.”

Less than an hour after the confetti stopped falling from the SoFi stadium ceiling, Smart was asked about Bennett’s ineligibility for the College Football Hall of Fame. Because he was never named an All-American, Bennett will not receive the highest honor in sports after his career. He was 29-3 as a starter. He was named the Offensive MVP of two CFP Semifinals and two CFP National Championships.

“I don’t know the prerequisites,” Smart said. “I know he has GOAT status in Athens, Georgia forever.”

When Smart walked into his office at SoFi Stadium after Monday night’s game, he found his 10-year-old son, Andrew. Thinking someone had hurt him, Smart asked him, “Why are you crying? You’re going to ruin my moment.”

“Stetson is going,” Smart’s son said. “He will leave.”

“He’s 25,” Smart said. “He has to go. He has to go.”

And now the Bulldogs will have to try to win another national championship without him.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *