Georgia struggles early at Arkansas, but Stetson Bennett rallies Bulldogs to victory

AP photo by Michael Woods / Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett passes during the second half of Saturday's season and SEC opener against Arkansas while offensive lineman Trey Hill blocks.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - Stetson Bennett transferred away from the University of Georgia after a freshman football season spent far down the depth chart. Back then, in early 2018, the quarterback didn't think he'd ever get a chance to lead his home-state Bulldogs to a win.

Things change.

Bennett wasn't expected to play in the Bulldogs' season and Southeastern Conference opener Saturday, with outside observers spending the whole week wondering whether Southern California transfer JT Daniels or redshirt freshman D'Wan Mathis would get the call against Arkansas.

However, when Daniels wasn't cleared because of injury and a slow start by Mathis led to the Bulldogs trailing against an opponent that hadn't won an SEC game since October 2017, it was Bennett who got the chance to come full circle - back from the junior college ranks - and deliver by rallying Georgia to a 37-10 victory.

Bennett entered in the second quarter and led Georgia to a field-goal drive late in the first half, and he marched the Bulldogs on three straight touchdown drives in the second half, breaking open the game and leading to an unlikely hero on a road trip that looked devastating for a half with the No. 4 team in the country trailing 7-5 at halftime.

"When I left, no, I didn't ever think I'd ever be back," Bennett said. "But when I came back, yeah, I thought I'd be here."

It was a confident answer coming from a guy who originally left the school after his first year when other quarterbacks transferred in, usurping his spot on the depth chart. And even though he served as No. 2 to Jake Fromm last year, he was expected to be No. 3 in 2020.

Now Georgia coach Kirby Smart has to make another decision after Bennett went 20-for-29 passing for 211 yards and two touchdowns.

Mathis threw a red-zone interception and was sacked for a 17-yard loss that pushed Georgia out of field-goal range on third down during his 6-for-14 day, ceding quarterback duties to Bennett with the team behind 7-2 after a safety was all the Bulldogs had to show on the scoreboard.

Even Bennett's first four series yielded only a field goal among a turnover-on-downs and a lost fumble, and Smart spent more time talking about Georgia's early struggles than the positives suggested by the final score.

"Really sloppy first half. Felt like I was in an extra-innings baseball game," he said of a game that had a halftime score that was more akin to that sport, too. "I thought we were very stagnant and (committed) undisciplined penalties. Every time we had something going, we'd shoot ourselves in the foot. You can't win football games doing those things. We've got to improve and get better."

Bennett's next three drives resulted in two touchdown passes and an 81-yard drive capped by a 6-yard touchdown run from Zamir White. In the span of 10 minutes on the game clock, Georgia had gone from down 10-5 to ahead 34-10, largely because of Bennett's settling effect.

Bennett put the Bulldogs ahead to stay when he tossed a 19-yard touchdown pass to George Pickens and ran in the 2-point conversion to make it 13-10 with six minutes left in the third quarter.

photo AP photo by Michael Woods / Georgia defensive back Richard LeCounte runs past Arkansas offensive lineman Myron Cunningham as he returns an interception during the first half of Saturday's season and SEC opener for both teams in Fayetteville, Ark.

Feleipe Franks was 19-of-36 for 200 yards in his first game with the Razorbacks after transferring from Florida in the offseason. No single Arkansas quarterback threw for that many yards against an SEC opponent last year. The Razorbacks have started five players at the position the past two years, and while Franks looked better than that bunch, first-year coach Sam Pittman wants more security.

"He has to be more conscious with the football," the former Georgia assistant said. "He's got to take care of the football. We were right in the game, and he threw a pick-6. Part of that was the receivers ran into each other. I thought we were very sloppy with formations, alignments on offense."

Running back Rakeem Boyd, a preseason All-SEC second-team pick, never exerted himself in the game as he ran for just 21 yards on 11 carries.

John Fitzpatrick caught Bennett's second touchdown pass, Eric Stokes picked off a Franks pass and returned it 30 yards for a score, and White ran for 71 yards on 13 carries, including the game's final touchdown. Jack Podlesny made two field goals for Georgia, both from 38 yards.

Even if Bennett doesn't start next Saturday's home game against No. 8 Auburn, a 29-13 winner against No. 23 Kentucky on the opening day of the 10-game league schedule for SEC teams, the way his past three years of football have gone, he isn't worried about it.

"The only people you can listen to is the people close to you and yourself," he said. "The decision is never made. That's all you have to do is keep working every day."