ATLANTA — Stetson Bennett served notice that pressuring Georgia to pass this season might not be such a great idea, after all.
The Bulldogs quickly dismantled the common and rationale pregame storyline that former UGA defensive coordinator-turned-Oregon head coach Dan Lanning would know how to effectively attack Georgia’s offense.
Bennett, instead, plucked apart Lanning’s Ducks, showing off an improved version of himself and the UGA pass game from the opening series of a 49-3 triumph.
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Bennett’s line, 25-of-31 passing for 368 yards with 2 TD passes, was as impressive as how he and offensive coordinator Todd Monken went about it.
Many might have expected a different outcome in the game if someone suggested Oregon would:
• hold All-America Brock Bowers to 2 catches
• prevent any UGA plays longer than 38 yards
• out-rush Georgia
• prevent any Bulldogs’ sacks
But Bennett showed on Georgia’s opening scoring drive — the first of seven straight TD drives — how the skills he improved this offseason have transcended the Bulldogs’ offense.
It turned out to be a blessing that Georgia faced a coach in Lanning who knew the offense and Bennett’s prior shortcomings so well.
Those factors absolutely forced the Bulldogs out of their comfort zone.
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Kirby Smart likes to run the ball, but he likes to win more, and that forced improvement and changes.
Smart’s pregame warning to “expect the unexpected” was quickly in effect when the Bulldogs’ offense came out playing no-huddle, reaching the Oregon 35-yard line in machine-like fashion.
“When he plays within himself,” ABC Network commentator Todd Blackledge said of Bennett during the telecast, “he’s really, really good.”
It proved a foreshadowing comment, with viewers soon to see a twist added that Bennett’s game has expanded.
Facing a second-and-11, Bennett saw Oregon linebacker and projected first-round draft pick Noah Sewell storm through the line and flash into his face.
Bennett darted quickly to his right, making the Ducks’ best defender miss, and rolled out, wisely throwing the ball away.
It was a good decision, “living for another day” as Smart has called it.
Still, Georgia was then facing the sort of third-and-11 situation Bennett sometimes struggled with last season.
That’s when Bennett showed how more offseason work paid off, dropping back and firing a strike on an intermediate out route to Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint that netted 12 yards for a first down.
Bennett, throws a pretty deep ball, but he said he knew he needed work on his footwork and increasing velocity and timing on those second-level passes.
On the very next play, Bennett was back on his horse, chased out of the pocket after Oregon’s Keyon Ware-Hudson ran over Tate Ratledge.
Again, Bennett showed the poise of making a veteran move to throw the ball away rather than force a pass downfield.
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“Stetson did a good job of being able to move the ball on the perimeter, and he’s elusive,” Lanning said, “so even when you do pressure at times, you’re not always able to get home.”
Coordinator Todd Monken, seeing early offensive line issues, called for a play-action QB keeper to the perimeter, and Bennett reminded everyone of his running strengths with a 7-yard scamper.
On the next play, a third-down in the red zone — another area Georgia was less than optimal last season — Bennett’s comfort and increased familiarity in the offense became more obvious.
Bennett sat in the pocket and quickly went through his progressions, looking right for Bowers before coming back left and finding Adonai Mitchell in stride over the middle.
One play later, Ladd McConkey took an end around pitch and scored the opening touchdown, sending the Georgia fans into celebration.
Not only had the Bulldogs drawn first blood in this so-called “Duck Hunt” opener, but they did so with Bennett showing improvement in areas that were once shortcomings.
Smart had spoke in the spring of Georgia’s need for a run game in order to get the play-action pass game going after Bennett struggled through a 15-of-35, two-interception spring game.
And yet, here was a game-opening drive that not only saw the offense go no-huddle, but also, passes on 9 of the 12 plays.
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Georgia led 28-3 by halftime, and after Bennett led two more scoring drives to open the second half, the head coach gave him the rest of the day off.
“It worked today, but who’s to say we don’t run it 40 times next week,” Bennett said, doing some foreshadowing of an anticipated blowout win over FCS Samford next Saturday.
“It doesn’t matter if we throw the 30-whatever times we threw it today or run it 40 times, (it’s) whatever is working …. "
What does matter is Bennett proved he can shoulder a passing load effectively against a talented opponent, and that makes this Georgia offense more dangerous than ever.
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