ENGLEWOOD, CA – Angelo Pezzo knows a thing or two about stories of great underdogs. He wrote the screenplays for “Hoosiers” and “Rudy,” two of the most iconic sports movies of all time. He knows a good story.
Pizzo, 75, sees a lot of Rudy Roetiger — the forward who played three snaps in one game for Notre Dame in 1975 — in Stetson Bennett, the undersized star of the Georgia Bulldogs.
“He’s like Rudy and he’s got more talent — a lot more talent,” said Pizzo. “It takes a special person. It takes a special belief. You have to kind of work through all the logic of, ‘You’re not like that.'” Go play for Georgia, not Georgia. “He had this belief and saw things and felt things that no one else did.”
On a Monday night, about 11 miles from Hollywood, Bennett put the finishing touches on a storied college career that Bezu could never have written. The former player, who left Georgia for a year to play junior college and then returned when the team needed him, led the #1 Bulldogs to a 65-7 victory over #3 TCU in the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T at SoFi Stadium.
Georgia became the fifth team to finish 15-0 and the first team to repeat as national champions in the CFP era. The Bulldogs are only the fourth running back since 1990; Nebraska (1994 and 1995), Southern California (2003 and 2004), and Alabama (2011 and 2012) were the others.
Bennett, 25, became the eighth quarterback in the AP poll to lead his team to back-to-back national titles.
Bennett’s last work was composing it. He completed 18 of 25 passes for 304 yards with four touchdowns and ran for two more scores. Bennett tied former LSU quarterback Joe Burrow for most points in charge of the CFP title game with 36. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, he is the only player over the past twenty-five years to catch four touchdown passes and two rushing points in a game. against a top five competitor.
“Stetson speaks for himself in the way he leads and prepares,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “His mental make-up is like a quarterback who thinks he can make every shot, and what he did tonight was really amazing. It was probably the best he’s had in his career, in my opinion, with some checks he’s done, some decisions he’s made, just really elite.”
Nobody expected Bennett’s cover call to come with about 13 and a half minutes left in the game. With Georgia up 52-7, Smart called it a timeout. Bennett hugged a few of his offensive linemen and tight end Brock Powers, then the quarterback walked to the sideline, where he was greeted with another hug from Smart.
During halftime, as the Redcoat Marching Band played, Georgia Bennett fans saluted by lighting up their cell phones and waving their arms in unison.
“I told all the guys, ‘What do we do?'” Bennett said. Why don’t we put on a play? “I was, like, they let me out of here.”
It was a fitting tribute to the quarterback who began his college career by emulating Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield in bowling exercises before the Sooners played in the 2018 Rose Bowl and finished as one of the most accomplished players in Georgia football history.
“Any time you have a conversation, he’s going to be in the debate about who is the best player and quarterback in Georgia history,” said Buck Bellew, who was the last quarterback before Bennett to lead the Bulldogs to a national title, in 1980. “I don’t see anyone else winning back-to-back titles. It’s like a royal flush. Who’s going to top that?”
A year ago, when the Bulldogs had a historically talented defense with five starters selected in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft, some pundits wondered if they had won their first national title in 41 years though at quarterback. Some Georgia fans, whether they will admit it now or not, were ready for Bennett to move on so that quarterbacks like Carson Beck and Brock Vandagriff would have a chance to play.
On January 12, 2022, two days after he threw twice in the fourth quarter to lead Georgia to a 33-18 victory over Alabama in the CFP title game, Bennett walked into Smart’s office and told him he was considering coming back.
“I’m trying to decide whether to go back or ride with the wind,” Smart quotes Bennett as telling his coach. “I don’t understand everyone telling me I should ride into the sunset [and] Be the legendary quarterback who won a national title. This is not just me. I did not get it. Why would I do that when I get a chance to play again? Why don’t we go win it again? “
Smart, who knew the Bulldogs would lose 15 players to the NFL, wasn’t as confident as the quarterback.
“I’m kind of thinking, ‘Okay, that would be great, but we’ve lost 15 draft picks,’” Smart said. “It might not be so easy this time.” But Bennett thinks Georgia will be good enough again. Smart said: He had complete conviction that he wanted to come back and go against the mainstream”. “He said, ‘I want to go play. I want to play football and prove to people that this is no accident. We can do it. ‘ And he did everything he said he was going to do.”
This season, it was clear that Georgia would not have won their second national title without him. He was 7-0 against ranked opponents, throwing 20 touchdowns with only three interceptions. During the regular season, he beat Oregon’s Bo Nix, Florida’s Anthony Richardson, Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker, and Kentucky’s Will Levis, who are all considered NFL prospects.
Bennett threw four touchdowns in the first half of a 50-30 rout of LSU in the SEC Championship Game. He had two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter against Ohio State in the CFP Semifinals, including the game-winner to Adonai Mitchell with 54 seconds left, to bring Georgia back from a 14-point deficit in a 42–41 win.
Ironically, it was the quarterback who got the smarts to open his offense. During Smart’s first two seasons as his alma mater’s coach, he built on what he learned at Alabama as defensive coordinator for Nick Saban. The Bulldogs ran the ball and played strong defense.
But when the Bulldogs were struggling to source highly sought-after quarterbacks and game-changing wide receivers, Smart changed his philosophy. After the 2019 season, Smart shook up his coaching staff and hired offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who had just been fired by the Cleveland Browns.
“[Smart] “He wanted a certain amount of structure, a certain amount of NFL experience,” said Monken. How explosive will you be? The narrative may have changed. Just because you’re conservative, you don’t want to be explosive. You should get players with good skill; You have to get a quarterback. how to do that?”
In the end, Monken and Bennett became the perfect partnership, but it took some time to get there. Bennett only took over after Justin Fields moved to Ohio State, Jimmy Newman dropped out from Wake Forest, and JT Daniels’ transfer from Southern California suffered.
Together, Monkin and Bennett produced two of the most high profile offenses in Georgia history. This season, Bennett became the Bulldogs’ first passer of 4,000 yards. In four CFP contests, he completed 67.8% of his passes for 1,239 yards and 12 touchdowns with one interception, and scored twice.
“He’s at the top — the best,” Georgia offensive tackle Broderick Jones said when asked about Bennett’s standing among the Bulldogs players. Stetson has done so much for this program, it’s insane. All the way from giving [the defense] Scouts look to play to throw game-winning balls. He did everything he could at the University of Georgia.”
Georgia wide receiver Ladd McConkey agreed.
“I think it comes down to the top,” McConkey said. “He won two national championships in a row. He showed up in every way he could and did so much for this program. I think he should come out on top.”
Less than an hour after confetti stopped falling from the roof of SoFi Stadium, Smart was asked, of all things, about Bennett’s ineligibility for the College Football Hall of Fame. Because he was never named an All-American, Bennett would not receive the sport’s highest honor after his career ended. He was 29-3 as a starter. He was awarded the CFP Offensive MVP semi-final and CFP National Championship.
“I don’t know about the prerequisites,” Smart said. “I know he’s got goat status in Athens, Georgia, forever.”
When Smart walked into his office at SoFi Stadium after Monday night’s game, he found his 10-year-old son, Andrew. Thinking someone had hurt his feelings, Smart asked him, “Why are you crying? You’re going to ruin my moment.”
“Stetson is leaving,” said Smart’s son. “he will go”.
“He’s 25,” Smart said. “He must go. He must leave.”
And now the Bulldogs will have to try to win another national championship without him.
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