INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Stetson Bennett could only think of one thing.
One goal. One message.
I cannot be responsible for costing Georgia its first national championship in 41 years.
What a miserable thing to think, right? There he was, Georgia’s walk-on quarterback-turned-starter, standing on the sideline with such an awful mantra running through his mind. How he got to that point involves one of the wildest plays you’ll see in a football game.
In the second half of a tight game with the national championship on the line, Bennett raced away from pressure and, while being hit, heaved a pass into the air for what appeared to be an incompletion. Only, it wasn’t. Alabama, to the surprise of many, recovered the fumble inside the UGA red zone and the Crimson Tide scored what was then the go-ahead touchdown with about 10 minutes left in the game.
Back on the sideline, there was Bennett, that one thought racing through his head.
“I wasn’t going to be the reason we lost this game,” he said. “I gotta fix that.”
And oh did he. After that disaster of a play, Bennett carved through Alabama to obtain that goal of his: He did not cost Georgia the national title. In fact, he won it for the Bulldogs—a 33–18 victory over the top-seeded Tide.
Following the turnover, Bennett completed his final four passes of the game for 83 yards, including a pair of touchdown throws that ensured UGA’s four-decade national title drought ended. As seconds ticked off the game clock, the senior grew emotional on the sideline, falling into the arms of staff members and teammates, tears streaming down his face—an outburst indicative of a Georgia-bred kid leading his home state school to the peak of the sport.
His meandering and quite unbelievable route here began as a scout-teamer in Athens and then went through a Mississippi junior college before a return to Georgia.
“Five years ago, he was delivering passes like Baker Mayfield against the scout team. We were impressed,” UGA coach Kirby Smart said. “To think it could come this far, what a story.”
Against the odds, Stetson took over as starter in 2020 and then, surprisingly for some, fended off hotshot transfer JT Daniels this year. Despite the chirping critics and fan bashings, he kept delivering big wins, playing steady if not sometimes impressive ball.
During the national title game, the doubters re-emerged. In its first eight drives of Monday’s game, Georgia had six points, five punts and four three-and-outs. Fans were restless—both in the stadium and on the internet.
In fact, the Bulldogs gained a combined one yard on their first two drives of the game, enough of a sample size for some fans to call for a quarterback change. Just a few minutes into the game, Daniels’s name was trending on Twitter.
And then, later, came the weird play.
With Georgia leading 13–12, Bennett rolled right and launched a pass that bounded toward the sideline. Alabama linebacker Brian Branch scooped up the bouncing ball, barely staying in bounds as he corralled it.
The crowd murmured and Georgia offensive players began to prepare for the next play before officials gathered and the announcement was made: The play was a fumble and Alabama recovered.
They reviewed the play to (1) make sure Branch possessed the ball before his toe stepped out of bounds—he was less than an inch in bounds—and (2) that what appeared to be a pass was indeed a fumble. The call on the field stood, the Tide got possession at the Georgia 16-yard line and then scored the go-ahead touchdown with 10 minutes, 14 seconds left.
“What we ruled is that the quarterback lost possession of the ball prior to his hand coming forward, so we ruled fumble,” head referee Duane Heydt said in a statement through a pool report.
NCAA coordinator of officials Steve Shaw says the ACC officiating crew got the call right.
“The quarterback did not have firm control of the ball as the hand went forward, so replay let that part of the play stand,” he tells Sports Illustrated in a text. “There was clearly no indisputable video evidence to overturn the call.”
On the sideline, UGA running back James Cook gathered the offense as officials reviewed the play. “It was in the refs’ hands,” Cook said. “We got all the guys together and kept chopping. We were still in the game. We kept chopping.”
On the other sideline, linebacker Will Anderson Jr. and Alabama got a momentum-swinging gift. “It was a good shift of energy,” the linebacker said. “It was something we needed.”
Bennett, meanwhile, stewed. He was distraught, disappointed and frustrated. How can this long journey end in such a sour way?
“We weren’t going to let a turnover like that prevent us from having a national championship,” Bennett said. “I wasn’t going to let that happen.”
And so there he went, carving through Bama’s secondary. Down 18–13, Bennett hit Jermaine Burton for 18 yards and then Kenny McIntosh for 10. He was sacked before launching a perfectly placed pass to Adonai Mitchell in the corner of the end zone—a rollicking, lead-taking 40-yard touchdown. A series later, while nursing a 19–18 lead, the Bulldogs got a defensive stop and then marched down the field for a back-breaking drive. Bennett handed off five straight times, Georgia backs gained 32 yards and then the QB capped it with a 15-yard screen pass to tight end Brock Bowers for an eight-point lead.
“Our offensive line, we mashed them on that drive,” Bennett said. “We played Georgia football on that drive. We weren’t going to be stopped. It felt great handing the ball off and watching those dudes.”
Afterward, Bennett pointed to everyone but him. The O-line, the running backs and, most of all, a defense that largely suffocated Alabama the entire night—a unit that sealed the win late by returning an interception for a touchdown.
But who’s got a better story than Bennett? He’s from Blackshear, Ga., about 200 miles south of Athens, and was raised as a Bulldog by UGA alum parents. He was a two-star prospect who needed to take the junior college route and beat out some highly-touted guys on Georgia’s roster to claim the starting gig.
Afterward, he was in somewhat of a haze, shocked by it all.
“I’m speechless,” he said.
“Good Lord. Wow!” he later added.
He had a message for walk-ons around the country, those counted out and on the bench.
“Keep fighting and keep your mouth shut,” he said. “Life is tough.”
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