ATHENS — Kirby Smart said it was a matter of JT Daniels taking what Mississippi State was giving, something he knew the USC transfer was capable of doing.
Smart’s No. 13-ranked Bulldogs (5-2) scored a 31-24 win over Coach Mike Leach’s Maroon Bulldogs (2-5) on Saturday night at Sanford Stadium behind Daniels’ 401 yards passing and 4 TD throws.
“The way they played us was to stop every (run) play and force him to make plays down the field, and that’s what he does well,” said Smart, whose head coaching tenure had not featured a 400-yard passer before Saturday night.
“(Daniels) gets the ball vertically, gives guys a chance one-on-one. We had our complete wide receiver corps all out there, (and that) makes it tougher to defend you when you’ve got those weapons.
“And he was accurate,” Smart said. “The one thing we said we had to be at that position was accurate.”
Daniels went into Smart’s office the day after the Florida loss and told the head coach he could make a difference for the team.
“He was very adamant that he was confident in his knee, that he was ready to go, that he could make the throws and do the decision-making and do all the things that weren’t getting done in terms of accuracy,” Smart said.
“He has extreme confidence in himself, which is what you want at that position because if you don’t and you doubt yourself it’s really hard. He did a good job of working the receivers, making them believe too he was going to get them the ball and make plays and re-energize that group which is really important.”
Smart was peppered with questions about why he didn’t turn the offense over to Daniels earlier this year, and he said he could understand why.
“Absolutely,” Smart said. “But maybe the question should be, ‘Man, aren’t they glad they’ve got J.T. here, when nobody thought that maybe they needed him.”
Fact is, Smart evaluated Daniels with the starters back in August when he was still wearing a heavy knee brace and was not as mobile or as sharp on his throws.
“We’re investing reps in him and we’re out there doing eight plays of third down and he can’t move, you know?” Smart said of Daniels’ first-team work in August. “It’s tough to execute in that environment.
Daniels has improved as the season has progressed, but Smart noted that Stetson Bennett performed well from the Arkansas game through wins over Auburn, Tennessee and the first half at Alabama.
“The decisions were made were on who we felt gave us the best opportunity to win, and a lot of that had to do with mobility and Stetson’s play,” Smart said. “The kid played pretty good against Florida without George Pickens until he took the shot.”
Bennett put directed a 6-play, 61-yard TD drive that gave UGA a 14-0 lead against the Gators but was injured on his scoring throw.
“Then it kind of all went downhill,” Smart said. “As Stet struggled, we had to look for other options.”
Smart said the real story is how Daniels handled things when he was relegated to third string behind Bennett and D’Wan Mathis the first six games of the season.
“Let’s make the discussion about how well JT handled it in a world where nobody handles things very well when they don’t get what they want,” Smart said. “What he did is he said, ‘Coach, I want to come down to the scouts and I want to throw and I want to be part of the game plan.’
“And he came down with me and went every day against what I think’s a pretty good defense … he made plays, he moved around in the pocket, and he started showing us that, ‘hey, I can do this thing.’ He took the bull by the horns and he took advantage of it tonight.”
Good thing, because the Georgia run game generated only 8 yards on 23 carries, hampered by Daniels getting sacked three times for minus-21 yards.
Still, Zamir White gained only 21 yards on 11 carries.
“They kicked our butt that’s the bottom line,” Smart said. “Hey, we pass protected better than they pass rushed, and they run stopped better than we ran.”