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How Stetson Bennett rallied Georgia to a decisive victory in the college football playoffs

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ATLANTA — Stetson Bennett stood alone on the hastily erected Peach Bowl stage as Crews prepared for the trophy presentation and his teammates celebrated a stunning 42-41 win over Ohio State. His head coach, Kirby Smart, was handing out dignitaries and bowl broadcasters. Javon Bullard rocked his Defensive MVP trophy, and Sedrick Van Pran kept a grip on Georgia’s Peach Bowl trophy. Bennett stood there empty-handed, staring at the loyal Bulldogs who had stayed long after midnight on New Year’s Eve, and he just shook his head, as if he couldn’t believe what he had just done.

Bennett often has a suspicious scowl on his face, frowning, eyes narrowed. It’s as if he still isn’t sure that all this wealth – trophies, championships, honors – is his. Maybe it’s the walk-on in him that always looks up to the competition, and maybe it’s just a never too high, never too low mindset that keeps him level when all around him collapses into anarchy.

Saturday night’s game was sure to be called a chaos. Georgia played its most scrappy game of the past two years at the worst possible time, a stop-and-start near-collapse that looked a lot more like a poor dress rehearsal than an elite performance. Bennett himself seemed to return to his pre-championship winning self, fluttering passes, missing reads, throwing an off-balance interception that Ohio State returned in a touchdown, and nearly threw another who would have been fired for six.

“There was a 30-minute period where I just played bad football,” Bennett said. “We have to fix this.”

Georgia trailed at halftime and as the team headed for the locker room, Smart ran onto the field to catch Bennett. He put an arm around his quarterback’s shoulder and gave him direct and honest advice.

“If we’re going to trust you with this,” Smart said, “you have to make good decisions.”

Bennett never really settled in until the last practice, the one he — and, perhaps, Georgia fans, too — will remember for generations: a five-game, 72-yard masterpiece that made move Georgia from a humiliating semi-final loss to a place in the national championship, all in the space of 55 seconds.

That’s how it went: Trailing 41-35, with 2:35 to go, Georgia took over at their own 28. No margin for error, no margin for maneuver, no tomorrow. The moment every player dreams of, the chance to be a hero, the chance to be immortal. How perfect is it?

“Where 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 of them in the eye. He began to challenge them, to inspire them, to motivate them to rise again. We didn’t play our best and we didn’t do our job to the best of our abilities, but we are here now. It’s in our hands now. His teammates caught his eye and took up the challenge.

First down, a quick two-yard hit to Kenny McIntosh, who had recorded both a touchdown and a 52-yard run in the first quarter. Second play, a 15-yard jab to Brock Bowers, the tight end who had been missing for much of the night. Third game, an offside penalty against a nervous OSU defense. Third play again, a 35-yard thunderbolt to Kearis Jackson to put Georgia on Ohio State’s 15. Game four, another quick hit to McIntosh to reach OSU 10. Game five and final, a touchdown in the back of the end zone to AD Mitchell, who had only played four games and caught five assists the entire season before Saturday evening.

An additional point later, Georgia led 1 with 54 seconds on the clock. And in that moment, all Bennett could do was watch. He sat alone on the Georgia bench for a few minutes, watching CJ Stroud guide Ohio State into what would have been an even more impressive comeback than the one Bennett just wrote about. Bennett stood and joined his teammates, watching with hope and fear, and ultimately exulting as Ohio State’s potentially game-winning field goal tumbled.

Bennett finished with the greatest statistical performance of his career: 23 of 34 for 398 yards and three touchdowns. Don’t expect it to boast 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 in the nine days between the Peach Bowl and the National Championship on 9 January: “We have to settle this.”

After the trophy presentation ceremony, after cannons launched red, white and black confetti into the air, as the Georgian band performed another rendition of “Glory”, Bennett came down from the stage, put a hand on the shoulder of a much taller teammate, and ran off the field. His teammates remained on the grass, celebrating for a few more minutes, posing for selfies and hugging friends and family, but Bennett ran off the field.

There is still work to be done. An extra, even a former one, knows that you can never party too early.

Stetson Bennett took the Bulldogs back to the national championship.  (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Stetson Bennett took the Bulldogs back to the national championship. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

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Contact Jay Busbee at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.

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