In the first quarter of Georgia’s ninth game of the season against then-No. 1 Tennessee, Bulldogs senior quarterback Stetson Bennett showed a wrinkle to his game that could pose problems for the Buckeyes in the Peach Bowl in Saturday.
Third-and-10 at the Volunteers 13-yard line, a compound blitz resulted in a Tennessee free rusher across the left side of Georgia’s offensive line, knocking Bennett out of the pocket.
Bennett rolled to his right, stepped over the would-be tackler and stuttered into the open field before diving headlong for the pylon, giving Georgia a lead he wouldn’t give up.
The added element of the quarterback run isn’t something the Buckeyes defense isn’t used to dealing with, lining up opposite dual-threat quarterbacks Toledo sophomore Dequan Finn – who fourth-year linebacker Steele Chambers vs. Michael Vick – and Michigan sophomore JJ McCarthy.
Chambers said defending the quarterback run is something you learn to do over the course of the season.
“We got tested very early this year with him,” Chambers said. “Since then, you live and you learn. You just adjusted based on that, and I think as the season went on we definitely improved. And I think that’s the ultimate test this week with Stetson.
Bennett’s rushing attempts have gone from 4.6 per game last season to 3.9 per game in 2022, and he’s averaging just 14.2 rushing yards per game this year, down from a career high 18.5 yards per game in 2021.
Don’t let the drop in production fool you. Bennett has had great gallops this season.
Bennett recorded the longest run by a Bulldogs quarterback since 1976 on a 64-yard touchdown against Auburn on Oct. 8, as his seven rushing touchdowns this season are the most by a Georgian caller since seven scores by Aaron Murray in 2014.
Chambers said that in the open, Bennett could move in a way that pushed past defenders who tried to tackle him.
“He has this weird little dead leg thing he does. It’s annoying anytime he’s in an open space,” Chambers said. “He’s a great player, and I think it’s going to take 11 guys to really stop him and stop this whole attack.”
The Blackshear, Georgia native has 184 rushing yards on 47 attempts in 2022, with his 14.15 rushing yards per game 10th-best among Southeastern Conference quarterbacks. He has landed a first down on 34% of his runs this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
His value on the field, however, comes from his ability to extend plays and pick up big yards on broken plays. According to Pro Football Focus, Bennett has rushed 10 times this season for 64 yards.
Facing pressure this season, Bennett is one of the best in the SEC, as his 12.2% pressure leading to sacks is fourth-lowest in the conference, according to Pro Football Focus.
There are several levels to planning how to stop a mobile quarterback, starting with the defensive line.
Fourth-year defensive end Zach Harrison said the defensive line needs to “rush,” which defensive line coach Larry Johnson says means “caking” the pocket.
“There’s going to be the extremities, the innards going wild,” Johnson said. “There’s a collective to make sure the quarterback stays in the pocket, so keep him from scrambling.”
Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said it was a “balance” between chasing a sack and keeping a mobile quarterback in the pocket.
“You don’t want to hold back your rushmen. You want these guys to be able to go,” Knowles said. “You have to operate with the fundamentals, knowing how this guy likes to scramble or at least make room for himself and where he moves.”
The next phase in containing a mobile quarterback is at linebacker, and Chambers said he’ll have to rely on his conscience to make plays if Bennett slips out of the pocket.
“Sometimes you get so caught up in your drops, maybe like your zone drops or whatever, being on a man,” Chambers said. “But, I mean, you always have to have that in mind that he can go out and he can make big plays with his legs.”
Bennett finished as a Heisman Trophy finalist this season after his best year since assuming the starting role in 2020. He threw for 3,425 yards with 68.1% completion and 20 touchdowns – all records in career.
Head coaches Ryan Day and Kirby Smart praised Bennett for being a “winner” and having “the perseverance and resilience,” respectively.
Johnson said it was “paramount” to keep Bennett in the pocket and prevent him from beating the No. 4 Buckeyes with his legs.
“Keep it in the pocket, force it to throw a ton of it,” Johnson said. “If we get the big players, put the ends in their face, so our ends can’t rush behind the quarterback, because in the passes it creates seams.”