ATLANTA — Stetson Bennett stood alone on the hastily erected Peach Bowl stage as crews prepared for a trophy presentation and his teammates celebrated a heart-stopping 42-41 victory over Ohio State. His head coach, Kirby Smart, was glad-handing bowl dignitaries and broadcasters. Javon Bullard cradled his Defensive MVP trophy, and Sedrick Van Pran kept a tight grip on Georgia’s Peach Bowl Trophy. Bennett stood there, hands empty, looking out over the Bulldog faithful that had stayed long past midnight on New Year’s Eve, and he just shook his head, as if he couldn’t believe what he’d just done.
Bennett often has a bit of a suspicious scowl on his face, his eyebrows knitted, his eyes narrow. It’s like he’s still not quite sure all these riches — trophies, championships, honors — are his to keep. Maybe that’s the walk-on in him who is still eyeing the competition, and maybe it’s a never-too-high, never-too-low state of mind that keeps him level when everything around him is descending into anarchy.
Saturday night damn sure qualified as chaos. Georgia played its most disjointed game of the past two seasons at the worst possible time, a stop-and-start near-collapse that felt a whole lot more like a bad dress rehearsal than an elite performance. Bennett himself seemed to revert to his pre-championship-winning self, floating passes, missing reads, throwing one off-balance interception that Ohio State flipped into a touchdown, and very nearly tossing up another that would have been returned for six.
“There was a 30-minute period there where I just played bad football,” Bennett said. “We’ve got to fix that.”
Georgia trailed at halftime, and as the team was heading for the locker room, Smart raced out onto the field to catch Bennett. He threw an arm around his quarterback’s shoulder and gave him some direct, honest advice.
“If we’re going to trust you to do this,” Smart said, “you’ve got to make good decisions.”
Bennett never really settled down until the final drive, the one he — and, maybe, Georgia fans too — will remember for generations: a five-play, 72-yard masterpiece that took Georgia from a humiliating semifinal defeat to a berth in the national championship, all in the space of 55 seconds.
This was how it went down: trailing 41-35, with 2:35 left on the clock, Georgia took over at its own 28. No margin for error, no wiggle room, no tomorrow. The moment every player dreams of, the chance to be a hero, the chance at immortality. How perfect is that?
“Where else would you rather be?” Bennett said after the game. “Having the ball with two minutes left, and if you score a touchdown, you win the game.”
Bennett gathered his team around him in the huddle and looked each one of them in the eyes. He began challenging them, inspiring them, motivating them to rise up one more time. We haven’t played our best, and we haven’t done our jobs to the best of our ability, but we’re here now. It’s in our hands now. His teammates met his gaze, and rose to the challenge.
First play, a quick 2-yard flick to Kenny McIntosh, who’d recorded a touchdown and a 52-yard run way back in the first quarter. Second play, a 15-yard jab to Brock Bowers, the sledgehammer tight end who had vanished for much of the night. Third play, an offsides penalty against a jittery OSU defense. Third play again, a 35-yard thunder strike to Kearis Jackson to put Georgia on Ohio State’s 15. Fourth play, another quick-hit to McIntosh to reach the OSU 10. Fifth and final play, a touchdown in the back of the end zone to AD Mitchell, who had played in just four games and caught five passes all season prior to Saturday night.
One extra point later, and Georgia was up 1 with 54 seconds on the clock. And at that point, all Bennett could do was watch. He sat alone on the Georgia bench for a few minutes, watching as C.J. Stroud guided Ohio State into what would have been an even more impressive comeback than the one Bennett just authored. Bennett rose to his feet and joined his teammates, watching with hope, and fear, and finally exultation as Ohio State’s would-be game-winning field goal tumbled wide.
Bennett finished with the greatest statistical performance of his career: 23-of-34 for 398 yards and three touchdowns. Just don't expect him to glory too much in those numbers.
"We didn't play our best game, starting with me," he said, then repeated what will clearly be a mantra for him over the nine days between the Peach Bowl and the national championship on Jan. 9: "We've got to fix that."
After the trophy ceremony, after cannons blasted red, white and black confetti into the air, as the Georgia band played one more rendition of “Glory,” Bennett climbed down off the stage, put a hand on the shoulder of a much larger teammate, and raced off the field. His teammates stayed out on the turf, celebrating for a few more minutes, posing for selfies and hugging friends and family, but Bennett left the field at a dead run.
There’s still work to be done. A walk-on, even a former one, knows you never celebrate too early.
Contact Jay Busbee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.