ATLANTA — The legend of Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett would have endured for generations even if the confetti of last season’s celebration served as the backdrop in the story’s final scene. The former walk-on led the Bulldogs to a national title a year ago, and that lasts forever. But Bennett decided to return for his sixth season of college football, so here he is now, poised on the sport’s biggest stage, throwing the winning touchdown in the final minute of a semifinal matchup against Ohio State.
Bennett’s 10-yard pass to Adonai Mitchell lifted top-seeded Georgia ahead with 54 seconds to go. The Buckeyes then drove down the field in search of a game-winning field goal attempt, but Noah Ruggles’s 50-yard kick was wide left, sealing the Bulldogs’ 42-41 Peach Bowl win on Saturday night. After the miss, Georgia’s celebration could begin. Bennett raced onto the field with his arms outstretched, overcome with joy.
Chasing a second consecutive national title, Bennett authored the ferocious rally for the Bulldogs, who entered the fourth quarter of this College Football Playoff matchup with their title hopes fading. Georgia scored 18 points in the final period, and its defense held firm. The Bulldogs kept Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud from becoming the game’s headliner with late heroics and instead forced the long field goal that missed.
Stroud, a Heisman Trophy finalist like Bennett, had a brilliant performance against Georgia’s vaunted defense. But Bennett had the final say, throwing for 398 yards and three touchdowns, none more important than the one he spun to Mitchell in the corner of the end zone.
“Where else would you rather be?” Bennett said of his final offensive drive. “Having the ball with two minutes left, and if you score a touchdown, you win the game. I looked around, and there were a whole bunch of determined, strong stares from all the dudes. It gave me confidence.”
When Coach Kirby Smart’s team won the national title a year ago, the Bulldogs ended a 41-year title drought, and now they have a chance to repeat as champions. Georgia will face No. 3 TCU in the national title game on Jan. 9 at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif. If the Bulldogs win there, it would serve as the ultimate career ending for Bennett, the former scout team quarterback who transferred away, then returned as a scholarship player and spent years climbing the depth chart.
The No. 4 Buckeyes challenged Georgia, pushing the Bulldogs into their largest deficit of the season when they twice trailed by 14 points. Georgia made mistakes and struggled to contain Stroud all evening. Bennett, who threw an interception in the second quarter, said he “felt like there was a 30-minute period there where I just played bad football.” The Bulldogs logged only 32 yards during the third quarter, a dreary stretch in which the win drifted further from reach.
But during Georgia’s final three drives, when the team mustered a field goal and two touchdowns to climb out of the two-score hole, Bennett’s offense tallied 210 yards. That burst required a key fourth-down completion from star tight end Brock Bowers, initially ruled short of the line to gain but overturned upon review. Smart later called a timeout just before Ohio State snapped what would have been a successful fake punt with about nine minutes to go. Smart described the decision as “one of those gut reactions.” He said he “didn’t think that we had it lined up properly to stop it,” and it proved to be a critical move.
Eventually, Bennett, the 25-year-old quarterback, completed all five of his pass attempts on his team’s final series, punctuated by the grab from Mitchell, who had been injured during the season and entered this matchup with his most recent reception coming in September.
The undefeated Bulldogs looked invincible through much of this season, previously winning games by an average of 26 points, but Stroud and his elite receivers posed a difficult task. Stroud threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns as he picked apart Georgia’s struggling secondary.
“On the biggest stage,” Coach Ryan Day said, “[Stroud] played one of his best games.”
Marvin Harrison Jr., a sophomore but already one of the best receivers in the country, grabbed two of Stroud’s touchdown passes in the first half as the Buckeyes surged ahead, and teammate Emeka Egbuka combined with Harrison to make Ohio State’s passing attack an unstoppable force. These receivers, plus Stroud’s savvy, are the engines of the Buckeyes’ offense, and they thrived against the best defense they had faced all season.
“Those guys made plays when they needed to make plays,” Georgia defensive back Javon Bullard said of Ohio State’s offensive playmakers. “We knew coming into the game, it wouldn’t be perfect.”
The Buckeyes lost Harrison when he was ruled out late in the third quarter because of concussion protocols. On a third-down play, Harrison took a hard hit in the back of the end zone from Bullard that was reviewed for targeting but didn’t lead to a penalty. Ohio State settled for a field goal that extended its advantage to 38-24.
Then Georgia’s fourth-quarter resurgence began. The Bulldogs eventually trimmed Ohio State’s comfortable lead to 38-35 with Arian Smith’s 76-yard touchdown grab and a successful pass to Ladd McConkey on a two-point conversion. With 8:41 left in the game, Stroud and the offense took the field but couldn’t reach the end zone. Ruggles hit a 48-yard field goal to give the Buckeyes a precarious six-point lead. And Bennett pounced on the opportunity.
Ohio State backed into into the playoff. The last time the Buckeyes took the field, they looked vulnerable, with Michigan pummeling them in the fourth quarter. That lopsided defeat in late November forced Ohio State’s players to stay home during conference championship weekend, then rely on Southern California’s blowout loss in the Pac-12 title game to earn a playoff berth.
Despite the flaws exposed by Ohio State’s archrival, particularly its defense allowing explosive plays, the Buckeyes have one of the few rosters in the country that can match up with Georgia’s talent. Both programs reside on an exclusive tier in which five-star prospects flock to campus each year and their brands pique the interest of recruits nationwide. Those players gave Ohio State a chance — and the ability to hold a lead through much of the game — but Georgia prevailed.
After ending the program’s title drought last year, the Bulldogs returned with force this season. They stormed through what was supposed to be a difficult opener against Oregon, then their conference slate and the SEC title game. But what matters most is their next game, because this season will ultimately be remembered as one that ended with another national title or a year the Bulldogs fell short.