Just give the Heisman to the entire Georgia defense!

Georgia players celebrate with the fans after beating Florida Saturday in Jacksonville. (Stephen B. Morton/AJC)
Stephen B. Morton

How important is it that Georgia has the sort of elite, smothering, strong-across-the-board defense that only comes along about once a decade?

Well, the Dawgs’ offense had an inconsistent, up-and-down, fitfully productive day against rival Florida, and also turned the ball over three times, and yet Georgia still walloped the Gators 34-7 — that’s how important.

Frankly, instead of heaping accolades on the usual roster of quarterbacks or tailbacks, or even singling out the Dawgs’ giant nose guard, Jordan Davis, the Heisman committee should try thinking outside the box this year and just give the trophy to the entire UGA defense.

The Georgia defense was its usual smothering self against the Gators. (Bob Andres/AJC)
Bob Andres, Dawgnation

The Dawgs defenders are the best in the nation, the most important part of the No. 1 ranked team, and they do it all with incredible style.

That’s exactly what the Heisman is supposed to be about, isn’t it?

No wonder, when CBS’ Jamie Erdahl asked Kirby Smart after the game whether he had fun watching his defense dismantle the Gators, the Georgia head coach replied, with a big smile: “I have fun watching these guys practice!”

The hard-earned accolades for Dan Lanning’s defenders keep rolling in. CBS analyst Rick Neuheisel, noting that everyone of the Georgia D does his part, termed them “a dance team of destruction.” And SEC Network’s Gene Chizik said, after Saturday’s game, that the 2021 Dawgs have “a generational defense.”

Really, Georgia’s win over their most hated rival boiled down to a sequence that took a little over 2 minutes late in the first half, when the Georgia defense had three takeaways — a strip-the-ball fumble recovery and a pair of interceptions — that the Dawgs turned into 21 points, breaking open what had been a tight 3-0 game after a scoreless first quarter.

After Georgia took that 24-0 halftime lead at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, the outcome of the 100th meeting of the Dawgs and Gators (by UGA’s count) never really was in question.

Georgia linebacker Nolan Smith (4) strips the ball from Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson (15) in one of the games big plays. (Stephen B. Morton/AJC)
Stephen B. Morton, Dawgnation

“That changed the game, that double flip on them just before the half,” Smart said afterward. “The turnovers were the difference in the game. We had a few, too, but theirs were in their territory, and that was probably the biggest difference in the game.”

QB Stetson Bennett credited the win to the defense. “The defense came out,” he said in his post-game media appearance. “We were struggling. We really didn’t play that great of a game offensively, the whole time. That starts with me, I didn’t play my best game at all. They came out, got us turnovers, and we capitalized on those turnovers. That’s what we had to do. Nakobe [Dean] getting that pick-6 at the end was the icing on the cake, for the first half. It was a complete momentum change.”

Georgia, which came into the game leading the nation in scoring defense, held the Gators, who came in averaging 34.4 points, scoreless until 2:49 left in the game. It was the lowest point total by Florida in the Dan Mullen era.

Georgia now has allowed just 5 touchdowns this year and a total of 53 points (6.6 points per game). The 53 points through eight games is the lowest at this point in a season for the Dawgs since 1971 (46 points).

The Georgia D had another couple of sacks in the Florida game, and were led by linebacker Quay Walker’s career-high 13 tackles, while safety Lewis Cine had 8 tackles.

James Cook reaches the ball over the goal line for a score in Saturday’s big win over the Gators. (Stephen B. Morton/AJC)
Stephen B. Morton, Dawgnation

Meanwhile, the Dawgs’ offense continued doing enough to win, without leaving many people impressed with how they did it. As he admitted, Bennett was not particularly sharp, there was some needlessly conservative play-calling by Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken deep in the red zone, and Georgia’s offensive line had a very poor first half, with Bennett constantly under pressure from a Gator defense that kept collapsing the pocket

The best part of Georgia’s attack was the running game, with Zamir “Zeus” White (subject of a touching “SEC Nation” pre-game feature about the obstacles he overcame as a child) cracking the century mark with a season-high 105 yards on 14 carries, while James Cook had 46 yards on 10 carries. They each had a touchdown.

In the passing game, wideout Kearis Jackson led the team in receiving with 3 catches for 59 yards, and freshman tight end Brock Bowers had another terrific long run after catching a pass, for a 38-yard gain.

For the game, Georgia had 18 first downs to Florida’s 20 and the Gators had possession of the ball longer, 32:20 to Georgia’s 27:40. The Dawgs outrushed the Gators 193 to 161, while Florida outpassed Georgia 194 to 161. So, UF had 1 more yard of total offense, 355 to 354.

Of course, part of that is attributable to the Dawgs having a pair of one-play scoring drives capitalizing on two of those turnovers.

What do we make of the performance of Bennett, who not only started at quarterback over a supposedly fully recovered JT Daniels, but played the entire game?

Dawgs quarterback Stetson Bennett scrambles for a first down against the Gators. (Bob Andres/AJC)
Bob Andres, Dawgnation

On the one hand, he made some key plays with his legs against the Gators, including an impressive run down to the Florida 7-yard line late in the first half. On the other hand, Bennett threw two terrible interceptions, both on passes into coverage that he never should have attempted. He finished 10-for-19 passing, for 161 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. But, one of his incompletions was a dropped ball by White (who otherwise was stellar).

As Smart said of Bennett while talking with the Bulldogs radio network’s DJ Shockley after the game, “He does a really good job on some plays, and then you are holding your breath when he holds the ball. He has to make good decisions down the field. We can’t give the ball away. When it is not there — we are pretty good on the next down, so let’s play for the next down and not worry about that play. Making good decisions can be helpful with that.”

Still, Smart said Bennett’s “legs and mobility were a big part of the game plan and he made two really good plays with his feet.”

Bennett also threw a picture-perfect 36-yard TD pass to Jackson in the back of the Gator end zone.

Still, much work needs to be done offensively, and the same goes for the Dawgs’ special teams, whose play Saturday continued to be hit-or-miss — as in Jake Camarda nailed his 2 punts and kickoffs well, while placekicker Jack Podlesny missed one field goal, while making 2 others, and barely snuck one of his PATs inside the upright.

(Podlesny appears to need some work on his fundamentals. How about a Change.org petition to get Dawgs legend Kevin Butler to enroll for another graduate degree, so he can help out Smart’s kickers like he did during the early Hot Rod era?)

Georgia tailback Zamir White has a wide-open field as he runs for his fourth-quarter TD to cap off scoring. (Bob Andres/AJC)
Bob Andres, Dawgnation

And, of course, the future of Georgia’s QB position is no less murky than it was in the two weeks leading up to Saturday’s game, when Smart kept teasing that former starter Daniels was making great progress, but refused to say whether he’d play against the Gators.

In the end, he didn’t, not even after Bennett’s second pick,

And, yet, Georgia won comfortably, and is undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the nation, with Bennett having been the starting QB for five of its 8 wins. That makes the Dawgs’ quarterback situation (I wouldn’t call it a “problem”) more interesting than pressing.

Smart explained why Bennett got the nod over Daniels in his post-game video press conference: “JT has not been in practice as much as Stetson, going back to last week. So, we went with the guy that’s been practicing the most, and has been out there the most. … at the end of the day, we went with the guy that had the most continuity, and we thought we were playing well offensively.”

Smart added: “We think we have two really good quarterbacks.”

That didn’t stop college football observers and UGA fans from debating whether Georgia can win a championship with the Mailman, as Bennett is known, behind center. (In an impromptu unscientific sampling I took during Saturday’s game on Twitter, most fans responding thought the answer to that query was “No,” saying they think the Dawgs need Daniels in order to win a championship.)

I’m inclined to let Georgia’s QB situation play out without getting unduly worried. Smart wants to win, and, when he feels Daniels is fully ready to resume the reins, he will.

Some friends and I texted back and forth about that issue during the game, and I said that I thought Smart’s decision to start Bennett against Florida was wise, and I really didn’t expect Daniels to play unless he was needed. (He wasn’t.)

The counter to that argument is that Daniels needs real-game reps to work off the rust he’s accumulated while rehabbing a muscle strain, which is a valid point.

A very happy Kirby Smart greets freshman tight end Brock Bowers on the sideline. (Mackenzie Miles/UGA)
Mackenzie Miles, Dawgnation

However, Georgia still has enough games left for that to happen, and for Daniels to be back in tip-top playing form by the SEC Championship game in Atlanta. (With the Dawgs’ previous victim, Kentucky, losing to the SEC’s other Bulldogs Saturday night, Georgia now has clinched the SEC East title and a spot in the championship game.)

In the meantime, there are no signs of dissension in the locker room. Defender Nolan Smith, one of the heroes of Saturday’s game, with a fumble recovery and an interception, volunteered afterward: “I want to say something now about my quarterback, Stetson Bennett, ‘The Mailman.’ Y’all call him the weak point. I read all the stuff in the media, I know I’m not supposed to, but one thing with Stetson is he just works. He doesn’t listen to anybody, he just works, he’s a blue-collar guy. When you talk about trusting a guy, I trust him. Because he goes out and works and puts his best forward every day. Even though it may not look pretty to y’all, but he’s getting the job done.”

As for Bennett, he addressed the two-QB question with his usual grace. “This quarterback situation, if you want to look at this team in a nutshell, I mean we’re two guys that love this team. We have complete faith in both of us to go out there and play.

“And whoever’s playing, I mean on the sideline today JT on the sideline is giving me the coverages post-snap,” Bennett continued. “And when he’s playing, we help out.

“Everything on this team is about the team, and not the individual. I don’t know, it’s pretty cool.”

That’s as good a summation of the 2021 Georgia Bulldogs as I’ve seen.

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