How Kirby Smart and Stetson Bennett made an all-time comeback

How Kirby Smart and Stetson Bennett made an all-time comeback

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  • January 1, 2023
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ATLANTA — With about nine minutes left in Saturday night’s College Football Playoff semifinals at the Chick-fil-A Bowl, defending champion Georgia was 11 points behind Ohio State. The Bulldogs had made a rare stop on defense, bringing down Buckeyes quarterback CJ Stroud a yard before a first down.

Buckeyes coach Ryan Day, ranked fourth and one at Ohio State’s 34-yard line, sent out his punt team to get the ball back to the Bulldogs. But the assistants in Georgia’s coaching box found the Buckeyes lined up in a fake punt formation. Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart called a time-out just before Mitch Rossi ran for a first down at OSU. A sideline official whistled for a timeout before the Buckeyes snatched the ball and negated the first tee shot.

“They were in the wrong formation,” Smart told ESPN. “Luckily we had people yelling in the box. We weren’t lined up properly.”

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Smart’s time-out seemed a bit inconsequential back then, but it was the turning point in No. 1 Georgia’s stunning 42-41 comeback win over No. 4 Ohio State. Georgia trailed 38-24 before making the biggest fourth-quarter comeback in a CFP game.

On Jan. 9, the Bulldogs will seek to become the first team in the CFP era to win back-to-back national titles when they play No. 3 TCU in the CFP National Championship Game presented by AT&T in Los Angeles. The No. 3 Horned Frogs were a surprise 51-45 winner over No. 2 Michigan in a CFP semifinal at the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl on Saturday.

The Bulldogs won their 16th straight game after Ohio State’s Noah Ruggles ripped a 50-yard field goal attempt to the left three seconds from time. The absence sparked wild cheers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where Georgia has won three times this season.

“It was an emotional rollercoaster ride,” Smart said. “It was back and forth. It was ‘Who’s going to blink?’ Two really good teams are fighting.”

Chances are the Bulldogs wouldn’t be in contention for another national title if Smart hadn’t called the best break of his career — even if he didn’t want to take it at the time.

“I didn’t want to burn the time-out because once you burn the time-out, you can’t get the ball back,” Smart said. “If you don’t have three timeouts, you can’t get the ball back. We had three fakes this year. Everyone is faking. It’s nothing we’re doing wrong, we just started saying that if we think it’s fake, we’re going to call timeout.”

After Ohio State punched the ball back to Georgia, quarterback Stetson Bennett threw a 76-yard touchdown to Arian Smith on the next play. Buckeyes safety Lathan Ransom fell during the game and Smith was 10 yards open when he caught the ball at OSU 30. Bennett threw a two-point conversion to Ladd McConkey to cut the Buckeyes’ lead to 38-35 with 8:41 remaining.

“That [pass to Smith] was just running fast, and he did it, and he tripped the guy,” Bennett said. “The guy can do things that humans can’t do. He can run like humans can’t run and he can get the ball. When I saw him, I think the whole sideline stood up and said, ‘He’s open!’ So I just tried to put it on him and let him do the rest.”

The Buckeyes kicked a 48-yard field goal to take a 41-35 lead by 2:43. Needing a touchdown to have a chance at the win, Georgia started possession at 35. Bennett had some encouraging words for his teammates in the group.

“[I was] I just look at everyone and I’m like, ‘Okay, hey, we didn’t do our best and didn’t do our job to the best of our ability,'” Bennett said. “But we are here now. It’s in our hands now. The defense stood up whenever we needed them. Where else would you rather be? You have the ball two minutes before the end and if you score a touchdown you win the game.”

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Bennett, a Heisman Trophy finalist, was fantastic on the final ride. He passed 5-for-5, including a 10-yard touchdown for Adonai Mitchell with 54 seconds left.

Bennett hadn’t played much in the first three quarters. After the Buckeyes went 14-7 early in the second quarter, Bennett made a poor throw to running back Kenny McIntosh, who was intercepted by OSU linebacker Steele Chambers at the Georgia 30. Stroud threw a touchdown to Marvin Harrison Jr. three games later to make it 21-7.

Then, after Georgia fought back late in the first half to cut Ohio State’s lead to 28:24, Bennett almost threw an interception over the middle in the closing seconds. That earned him a stern lecture from Smart as they left the field.

“Back then I felt like every possession was valuable and I wanted to be aggressive,” Smart said. “We have announced a game. You hit a ball. We announced another game. He was in the pocket for a while and threw the ball a little high over center and put us in danger. I told him, ‘If we’re going to trust you to do this in two minutes, you have to make good decisions. If it’s not there, start and run.'”

The Bulldogs opened the second half with back-to-back three-and-outs, then missed a 52-yard field goal attempt. They were 38-24 down in the third quarter with 31 seconds to go. Georgia reached Ohio State’s 3-yard line, but then Bennett inexplicably threw a back pass to McConkey, who wobbled the ball and capped it for a 10-yard loss. Smart said throwing McConkey isn’t even an option for the game. Bennett should throw to a tight end or throw it away. Georgia had to kick a 31-yard field goal after that misstep to make it 38-27.

But when Georgia Bennett needed it most, the postman delivered again.

“That’s him. He is,” Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken told ESPN. “You’re never out with him. I don’t even know how to put it: he’s capable of getting s— over his head and making games to win games. It doesn’t matter what happened before.”

When the Bulldogs won their first national championship in 41 years a year ago, they relied on a historically talented defense that included five starters selected in the first round of the 2022 NFL draft. On Saturday night, however, the Georgia offensive had to do the hard work. The Bulldogs had no answer for Stroud, who threw for 348 yards on four touchdowns.

Georgia didn’t really slow the Buckeyes until Harrison Jr. was knocked out of the game on a crushing hit by defenseman Javon Bullard, who broke another touchdown catch with 35 seconds left in the third quarter. Officers initially fined Bullard for aiming, but the call was undone by immediate replay.

“We didn’t play our best football game,” Smart said. “A lot of it had to do with the state of Ohio. … If we want to have a chance of winning a national championship, we have to play much better football than we did tonight.”

In eight days, Georgia will seek to become the first team to win consecutive national titles since Alabama’s 2011-12. And Bennett, who started his career as a walk-on and left Georgia for a year to play at a junior college, will seek to become the first quarterback to lead his team to back-to-back national championships since AJ McCarron of Alabama.

“The legend isn’t over yet,” said Bulldogs center Sedrick Van Pran.

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