No. 4 Georgia rallies before rolling to 37-10 win against Arkansas

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Maybe it was jet lag. Maybe it was all the delays and personnel changes in the offseason. Whatever it was, Georgia got over it in the third quarter, and quarterback Stetson Bennett rallied the Bulldogs to a 37-10 road victory over Arkansas in the season opener Saturday.

But the win came only after getting a big scare from the Razorbacks and new coach Sam Pittman. The Bulldogs fell behind 7-0 in the first quarter, clawed their way back to trail 7-5 at halftime, then found themselves looking up at a 10-5 deficit early in the third quarter.

Then, Georgia finally made something happen.

Following the lead of Bennett, who took over for starter D’Wan Mathis in the second quarter, the Bulldogs put together their first touchdown drive of the game. Bennett opened the five-play series with a 9-yard run on a zone-read keeper. A 20-yard run by Zamir White and a completion to Kearis Jackson quickly got Georgia to the Arkansas 7.

A bad snap — one of a myriad of mistakes the Bulldogs committed during the game — backed them up to the 19. But Bennett promptly hit George Pickens with a pass down the left sideline, which Pickens was able to get into the end zone with a dive just inside the pylon.

Just minutes later, Georgia’s Zamir White blocked Arkansas’ punt and Georgia took over the Razorbacks’ 24-yard line. It took only four plays to get the Bulldogs home from there, as Bennett hit tight end John FitzPatrick over the middle for a 6-yard TD.

The third-quarter onslaught would continue.

Eric Stokes stepped in front of a Feleipe Franks pass intended for Mike Woods and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown.

So, in a matter of three minutes, Georgia went from down 10-5 to ahead 27-10. And normalcy seemed to be restored to the universe.

Bennett gets the credit for being both a catalyst and stabilizing force. The one-time walk-on and later a returning transfer led Georgia on a field-goal drive in the last minute of the first half, then got Todd Monken’s new offense moving in the second. He finished the day with a gaudy quarterback rating of 152.8 as he completed 20 of 29 passes for 211 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also gained 20 yards rushing on five carries.

White led the Bulldogs on a tough-sledding day with 71 rushing yards on 13 carries.

But there was no denying what happened in the first two quarters: An inability to run the football, penalties galore and allowing a long TD pass. That created enough concerns to keep the Bulldogs crazy busy between Sunday and Georgia’s home opener against Auburn on Saturday in Athens. The No. 8 Tigers defeated Kentucky 29-13 on Saturday on The Plains.

In the meantime, Saturday’s win gave Kirby Smart a 5-0 record in season openers and moved Georgia ahead 11-4 in its rarely played series with Arkansas. The Bulldogs are now 97-23-3 all-time in openers.

Playing in throwback uniforms with red pants to honor the 1980 championship team, Georgia played almost as badly as that team did in the first half of its opener 40 years ago at Tennessee. The eventual national champions rallied from a 15-0 deficit to beat the Volunteers, and the 2020 Bulldogs quickly found themselves quickly trailing 7-0 and unable to generate any offense.

The difficulties were understandable, considering Georgia was returning only two offensive starters and Georgia’s projected quarterback, Jamie Newman, opted out three weeks ago. But it turned out that transfer quarterback JT Daniels was still unable to play because of a knee injury that sidelined him at Southern Cal last season.

That meant a college debut for Mathis, who won the job in preseason camp just 16 months after having brain surgery to remove a cyst. Not surprisingly, Mathis struggled in his first live action since his senior season at Oak Park High in Belleville, Mich. By the time Smart turned to Bennett to take over, Mathis was 6-of-14 passing for 37 yards, had thrown an interception and let a third-down shotgun snap slip through his hands.

It wasn’t all Mathis. At one point while Mathis was under center, the Bulldogs had more penalty yards (73) than they did total offense (68). The Bulldogs’ only points in the first quarter came on a safety. Georgia trailed 7-2 at the time.

But Georgia’s vaunted defense held up its part of the deal. After All-American safety Richard LeCounte got beat for a 49-yard touchdown catch by Arkansas’ Treylon Burks, the defense stiffened and allowed the Razorbacks close to nothing the rest of the way.

LeCounte atoned as well, grabbing two interceptions to add to his four from last season and five in his career before Saturday. He also batted away another pass.

The Razorbacks ended with 241 yards and became the 14th of Georgia’s past 15 opponents who were unable to score more than 20 points.

The Bulldogs’ rally third-quarter rally was set up by some good work late in the second. Taking over at their own 20 with one minute to play, Bennett led Georgia on an eight-play, 59-yard drive. A 26-yard pass to freshman tight end Darnell Washington was the key play to set up a 38-yard field goal to end the half.

Walk-on Jack Podlesny, who beat out freshman Jared Zirkel for the place-kicking job, was bailed out by Pittman’s timeout when his first try hit the right upright. He nailed the second try, and the Bulldogs went into halftime trailing 7-5 knowing they’d get the ball to start the second half.

Podlesny made another 38-yarder in the fourth quarter.

The second-half rally was slow in coming. Georgia had reached midfield when James Cook fumbled after a catch at the Arkansas 47. The Razorbacks were able to get a field goal out of it.

From then on, though, it was all Bulldogs.


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