ATLANTA — Mobile quarterbacks have not been particularly kind to the Ohio State defense this season, but if the Buckeyes hope to extend their season and play for a national championship, that trend will need to change on Saturday in the Peach Bowl.
At first glance, Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett’s rushing statistics hardly jump off the page. While he has scored seven times on the ground, Bennett’s 184 rushing yards on 47 carries wouldn’t exactly be best described as prolific compared to some of the most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks in the country.
No, Bennett is not built in the same mold as Toledo’s Dequan Finn, who burned Ohio State for 70 rushing yards and a touchdown on seven carries in September, and he’s probably not even quite the big-play threat that Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy posed last month.
But what makes Bennett as equally dangerous as any quarterback Ohio State has faced this season, however, is the timing of his runs and the conviction with which he executes them. Bennett has made a habit of extending drives with crucial scrambles dating back to last year’s national championship run, and he displays no hesitation in pulling the ball down and laying his body on the line to keep the Georgia offense on the field.
On plays in which Bennett does not take off running, he has still shown a keen sense of awareness and maneuverability in the pocket that enables him to elude pass rushers and extend plays, ultimately finding receivers down the field for explosive plays or, at the very least, avoid drive-ending sacks.
“He might not run a 4.4 (40-yard dash), but he’s an athlete,” defensive lineman Zach Harrison said of Bennett during Thursday’s Peach Bowl Media Day. “Making guys miss in the pocket in one of his skills, evading pressure and not taking sacks. That’s definitely something we’ve noticed and something we need to be well aware of going into the game.”
Defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau described Bennett as “very smart” with “elite” pocket presence when surveying the field and evading any potential harm.
Against Michigan, Ohio State struggled to get McCarthy to the ground, and while Ohio State was directly burned by his legs just once, McCarthy’s ability to escape pressure and extend plays factored heavily in the number of big — and defining — plays Ohio State allowed in the loss. His lone rushing attempt of the game also went for 19 yards at a time when Ohio State had Michigan behind the chains in a pivotal juncture of the game, and Michigan went on to cap off the drive with the go-ahead touchdown.
McCarthy’s abilities represent a fair comparison to what could await the Ohio State defense on Saturday with Bennett, and if the Buckeyes are unable to find any more success in containing Bennett in the pocket, a similar outcome will likely also be awaiting them.
OSU defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said of Bennett’s skillset, “He has all the tools to elude any rush, keep his eyes downfield, step up in the pocket. He’s as talented as anyone we’ve played with his feet and his arm, and also his mental capacity. He can run, and you’ve seen him beat people with his ability to run, so I certainly don’t underestimate any aspect of his game.”
Knowles added of Bennett’s overall command of Georgia’s offense, “He makes all the decisions and changes at the line of scrimmage, so he’s seeing things in real time and making those decisions himself. He understands the defense. Every defense has a weakness, and he’s a guy who can find it. He’s not looking over to the sidelines. He’s been trained well and doing it himself on the field.”