Georgia, with a clear rout, shows gap from rest of college football
Stetson Bennett IV was named the offensive most valuable player for the game after passing for 304 yards and four touchdowns.
By BILLY WITZ
It’s hard to know when it was over. At the national anthem? The coin flip? The opening kickoff? Or perhaps even before that — the moment Noah Ruggles’ kick for Ohio State sailed far, far left on New Year’s Eve, giving Georgia a second life and scaring the Bulldogs straight in the process.
Whenever it was, the reigning national champion Georgia wasted little time turning the College Football Playoff title game in Inglewood, California into a coronation, laying waste to pesky little Texas Christian with a 65-7 thumping that was every bit as decisive as the score might have indicated.
The Georgia defense, led by the sticky hands of defensive back Javon Bullard, was all but impenetrable and its offense, led by the peerless performance of quarterback Stetson Bennett IV, was all but unstoppable. Together, they overwhelmed the Horned Frogs, whose storied run — behind its folksy coach, its gutsy quarterback and a cast of unlikely characters, including a quirky Hypnotoad talisman — ended with a thud.
Georgia, which rolled up 589 yards, did not punt until the second half — long after televisions surely had clicked off around the country. And with the way the Bulldogs continued to parade into the end zone and tee off on Max Duggan, the TCU quarterback, it was a wonder that officials didn’t order a running clock for the final quarter.
The only moment Georgia was baffled came when its coach, Kirby Smart, was asked afterward how a championship game could be so easy.
“I don’t have an answer for that,” he said.
The biggest previous margin of victory in a College Football Playoff final came four years ago when Clemson routed Alabama by 28 points. Georgia’s margin exceeded that by halftime. The Bulldogs scored the most points ever in a title game, surpassing the 62 that Nebraska posted in clobbering Florida in the 1995 season.
Georgia’s romp could stand as a proxy for the gap between the rest of the country and the Bulldogs, who won their second consecutive national championship and their 33rd game in the last 34 tries. Their back-to-back titles are the first since Alabama a decade ago.
For a program that until last year was known mostly for falling short, Monday should not be the end of the line with so many freshmen and sophomores dotting its depth chart.
Georgia may as well be renamed Blue Chip U. Each recruiting cycle, the top high school football prospects in the country, from California to Pennsylvania and all across the south, funnel into Athens, Georgia. And each spring, many of those former prospects — after years spent in a football finishing school — trickle out to the NFL.
Yet, the player most essential to the Bulldogs’ two championships was someone not even Georgia wanted.
Bennett, who grew up in speck-on-the-map Blackshear, Georgia, did not have a scholarship from a Football Bowl Subdivision school, so he headed up to Athens in 2017 as a walk-on, intent on working his way into the starting quarterback job.
A year later, Justin Fields, the top quarterback prospect in the country, showed up and those fealties to the school he grew up rooting for didn’t mean much. Bennett wanted to play. So off he went to a Mississippi junior college.
“When I left, I thought it was deuces out forever from UGA; I didn’t think I was coming back,” Bennett, who stands 5-foot-11 and weighs 190 pounds, said Saturday. “I kind of knew when I pulled the trigger that, hey, I’m not here at Georgia just to hang out and be on the team and have some footballs in 30 years. I want to play ball. I want to do what I think I can do.”
When Bennett returned a year later, he did so only when Georgia offered him a scholarship on signing day to keep him from going to Louisiana-Lafayette.
Georgia still didn’t know what it had.
Offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who arrived just as the coronavirus pandemic hit, was trying to parse through a crowded quarterbacks room, attempting to find reps for Jamie Newman, a transfer from Wake Forest, J.T. Daniels, a transfer from Southern California, and a pair of prized freshmen, D’Wan Mathis and Carson Beck.
Oh, and Bennett.
Daniels won the job in 2020 and got hurt in last year’s season opener against Clemson. The coaches were set to go with Beck the next week but Bennett badly outplayed him in practice. Bennett has started every game since.
“We’re human,” Monken said Saturday. “We all have preconceived notions of how a person looks, their background. Oftentimes we’re wrong — whatever it is, personal life, business, football. Sometimes you have to go by how they play.”
On Monday night, Bennett could do no wrong.
He was precise throwing the ball. He completed 18 of 25 passes for 304 yards and four touchdowns. He twice found Ladd McConkey, for scores of 37 and 14 yards, and added a 22-yarder to tight end Brock Bowers. His 22-yarder to Adonai Mitchell with 26 seconds left before halftime punctuated the Bulldogs’ dominant half.
Bennett was also dangerous running the ball. His two touchdown runs were waltzes into the end zone — untouched on a 21-yard keeper and a 6-yard scamper around the left end.
And the Georgia defense was only slightly less flawless.
The holes that were exposed the last two games by Ohio State and Louisiana State were patched up by Monday night.
The Georgia secondary blanked TCU receivers. Bullard, a sophomore, had two interceptions and a fumble recovery and the Bulldogs held star receiver Quentin Johnston to a single catch for 3 yards. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs front punished Duggan, sacking him five times — three of which were recorded by freshmen.
Georgia held the Horned Frogs, who entered averaging 474.1 yards per game, to a season-low 188. The only score Georgia surrendered was set up when it blew a coverage and Duggan connected with a wide-open Derius Davis for a 60-yard gain.
Several plays later Duggan ran into the end zone to make the score 10-7, Georgia. Finding any more highlights for the Horned Frogs would take some foraging.
“For whatever reason, it went downhill from there,” TCU coach Sonny Dykes said. “I don’t know what happened tonight. We ran into a very good team and it snowballed.”
In the other locker room, Georgia players puffed on cigars — when they figured out how to keep them lit — and talked about what amounts to a college football dynasty.
The Bulldogs had 15 players drafted by the NFL last April and did not bring anyone in through the transfer portal, so some backsliding was expected. And yet they were tested only twice: rallying from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to win at Missouri and coming back from a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit in the semifinal victory against Ohio State, which they survived on the missed field goal.
Next year, the challenge will be making do with a new quarterback.
Bennett came off the field for the last time when Smart called timeout to remove him with 13 minutes 25 seconds left, providing him with a curtain call and a bearhug as he reached the sidelines. It was something Smart said he had never done before.
When Smart got to the coach’s office, he found his 10-year-old son, Andrew, in tears.
Smart said he asked him what was wrong.
“‘Stetson is leaving,’” Smart said, mimicking his son crying. “I said, ‘He’s 25 years old. He’s got to go. He’s got to leave."
Indeed, he must. But as Bennett does finally depart, his exit on Monday night was not unlike the rest of the Bulldogs, who made sure to leave an indelible mark.