Let’s give proper credit for a really Smart coaching decision

Quarterback Stetson Bennett rolls out in Saturday’s game against UAB, in which he tied a Georgia record for touchdown passes. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton

OK, so who had Stetson Bennett throwing 5 first-half touchdown passes in the pregame betting pool?

Yeah, probably not even Stetson Bennett, who was so nervous at getting his first start since midway through last season that he couldn’t eat his pregame meal.

However, the nerves didn’t show at all when he took the field Saturday Between the Hedges to face the UAB Blazers in the Dawgs’ home opener. Some 38 seconds into the game, Bennett ended the Georgia offense’s TD drought by throwing a 73-yard scoring strike to Jermaine Burton.

Cool as could be, Bennett ended up tying a Georgia game record by tossing 5 touchdown passes — all in the first half, and four of them in his first 5 passing attempts — as the Dawgs romped to a 56-7 victory.

The redshirt senior looked like the relative veteran he is — which is why Bennett was Kirby Smart’s somewhat unexpected choice as starter. The UGA head coach explained he went with Bennett over preseason No. 2 quarterback Carson Beck, a redshirt freshman, because “we are really young offensively, we have a lot of guys who are injured or out. … and we thought it would give a calming effect to have [Bennett] in, with his experience and his ability to play in games.”

Mark that down as one of his smartest coaching decisions of recent years.

Receiver Jermaine Burton caught a touchdown pass from Stetson Bennett 38 seconds into Saturday’s game in Athens. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com, Dawgnation

Nevertheless, the Mailman, as some are wont to call Bennett, was not the popular choice to start this game at quarterback for the Dawgs. If the slightly banged up JT Daniels couldn’t go, most of Bulldog Nation expected Beck to get the call.

In fact, harking back to last year’s Florida game, when neither of Daniels’ predecessors at QB was very successful (though Bennett at least had the excuse of an injured shoulder), many fans on social media shuddered before the game at the thought of SBIV once again taking the snaps.

One idiot — I won’t dignify him by calling him a “fan” — went so far as to tweet that, if Bennett got the start, he hoped a defender would knock him out of the game.

After the final whistle in Saturday’s win — in which Bennett completed 10 of 12 passes for 288 yards, 5 TDs and no interceptions before giving way for most of the second half to Beck and, briefly, true freshman Brock Vandagriff — I went back to see what that guy who hoped SBIV would get hurt had to say.

His Twitter profile apparently had been deleted.

As it turned out, maybe Smart’s ranking of Beck as Georgia’s No. 2 QB in the preseason (and even early this past week) was just gamesmanship. The two series that Beck led in the first half resulted in punts, and, while he did look sharp at times in the second half, particularly threading the needle on the TD pass he threw to Justin Robinson, he clearly wasn’t as prepared to take over from Daniels as Bennett proved to be. Beck finished 4-for-10 with one TD and one bad pick-6.

And, as Smart indicated, Bennett did seem to have an easy command of the offense. Defensive end Travon Walker noted that the quarterback is “someone that’s always going to come in and work with excitement. He walks around the locker room singing. His spirit is always up, no matter what. Everything that he’s been through, he’s still one of those players that’s going to show up and work hard every day.”

Freshman tight end Brock Bowers wowed the Sanford Stadium crowd with his speed on an 89-yard scoring play. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com, Dawgnation

But, beyond providing the latest installment in the up-and-down, alternately inspiring and frustrating soap opera that has been Bennett’s college football career to date, Saturday’s convincing showing by the Dawgs was just what a fan base nervous about Georgia’s lack of offense in last week’s defensive win over Clemson needed.

While Georgia’s smothering defense had impressed one and all, some in college football even had wondered whether Georgia really deserved its No. 2 ranking in the polls — and those placing bets who didn’t think the Dawgs could cover against UAB had reduced the point spread favoring Georgia by about a touchdown over the past week.

That might have been a good thing, too. Smart had warned after the win over Clemson that his team was due to play a really good team in its second game. Some scoffed that he was pulling a Vince Dooley — building up a suspect opponent to keep his team from getting overconfident — but UAB wasn’t your typical “guarantee” opponent. The Blazers, who took a couple of years off before returning to playing college football in 2017, actually are a pretty decent Group of Five program that has won the Conference USA championship two of the past three seasons.

If it was going to beat UAB, Smart said Georgia’s offense needed to start making the kind of plays that its coaching staff terms “explosive.”

Mark that down as “mission accomplished.” Among Bennett’s five TD passes were strikes that traveled 73 yards, 89 yards and 61 yards. He also set up one of his shorter touchdown passes with a 20-yard run of his own. It was one of those days, Smart said, where “it just seemed that everything clicked.”

Meanwhile UGA’s defense remained fearsome, led by a front seven that so far has overwhelmed its opponents. That defense still hasn’t given up a touchdown, with the Blazers’ lone score coming against Georgia’s offense, courtesy of a pick-6 on a poor throw by Beck late in the game.

Georgia outside linebacker Adam Anderson sacks UAB quarterback Tyler Johnston III during the first quarter of Saturday’s game. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com, Dawgnation

In other words, Georgia looked like a top team taking care of business confidently and efficiently.

The highlights for Dawgs fans were many:

• As promised in preseason, Georgia is throwing to its tight ends, particularly freshman sensation Brock Bowers, who led Dawgs receivers, catching 3 passes for 107 yards and two TDs. On his long one (the 89-yarder), Bowers left jaws dropped with the afterburner speed he showed, shooting right past a defender who appeared to have an angle on him.

• Running back James Cook, not generally known for running over people, broke some tackles on his 14-yard scamper for a TD in the third quarter.

• Georgia also continued to show impressive depth on offense. Imagine what they will be capable of accomplishing when the bulk of the experienced receivers return.

• The Dawgs’ defense had another three sacks. Channing Tindall was the leading tackler, with 7 (including one of the sacks). And, Georgia had another three interceptions, including one returned for a TD by Jamon Dumas-Johnson in the fourth quarter. Plus, the Blazers converted on only one of 11 third-down tries. While Smart wasn’t thrilled with the second- and third-string defenders giving up some yardage on the ground late in the game, this still was another very impressive performance by the D.

What needs improvement? Well, the running game took quite a while to get going, and was nothing special, with only 163 of Georgia’s 539 offensive yards obtained on the ground. Zamir White led Georgia runners with 34 yards on 7 carries, a 4.9 average. Daijun Edwards and Kendall Milton each had 29 yards running, and Kenny McIntosh had 20 yards, plus he caught a TD pass. Smart told Bulldogs radio sideline reporter DJ Shockley in the locker room after the game that the rushing attack is “not where it needs to be.”

Yes, the Blazers were loading the box to sell out against the run (which left them vulnerable to the deep pass), but, overall, Georgia’s run blocking still isn’t consistently dominating. As Cook put it after the game: “We just have to strengthen a little bit harder on the offensive line, and we should be fine.”

In addition to his passing Stetson Bennett also had a 20-yard run against the Blazers. (Tony Walsh/UGA)
Tony Walsh, Dawgnation

And, while special teams overall was good (with punter Jake Camarda averaging 49.7 yards per kick, including a 60-yard boomer), placekicker Jack Podlesney missed another field goal. That makes him just one-for-three for the season, and that isn’t good, kicking legend Kevin Butler pointed out on the radio postgame show. Butler, who helped with kickers early in Smart’s tenure, said someone needs to work with Podlesney on his fundamentals. He also indicated the competition with backup kicker Jared Zirkel might reopen.

When it comes the quarterback situation, some were trying, by game’s end, to suggest Smart might be in a quandary over whether to go with a healthy Daniels or the resurgent Bennett, but that appears unlikely, considering the two players’ total resumes. As for this coming week against South Carolina, Smart indicated the decision on who will start will depend on “what percentage of health JT is at.”

As for that game against South Carolina, Smart already was working on his team’s mental prep immediately after Saturday’s win. The last time the Gamecocks came to Athens, they shocked everyone with an upset of the heavily favored Dawgs. Said Smart: “I ain’t forgot.”

BONEHEAD CALL OF THE WEEK

That goes to whoever at ESPN decided that, rather than start the Georgia-UAB game on time on ESPN2, it was better to cut to the ending of the Pitt-Tennessee game, which already was airing on the main ESPN. Meanwhile, the game featuring Georgia, the No. 2 team in the country, was shunted off to the ESPN app, where even then they didn’t get the feed started up on time, missing the first touchdown entirely.

That doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence about how the so-called Worldwide Leader in Sports will handle things when all SEC games move under their control after the CBS TV deal expires.

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