Bennett/Jennings looking for redemption

Billy Bennett

ATHENS -- In the past, Georgia safety Sean Jones says, things would have been a lot tougher on Billy Bennett and Tim Jennings.

Billy Bennett missed three field goals and Jennings was burned for the game-winning touchdown in Georgia's 17-10 loss to LSU 11 weeks ago. However, instead of being blamed and ostracized by their teammates, they have been uniformly embraced.

"I talked to (Jennings) after that play," Jones said. "I told him to get over it. That happens in football. There was no fault or blame put on him. We took the loss as a team. We don't blame anybody at Georgia.

"It's the same way (with Bennett). Billy has bailed us out a lot of times. If it wasn't for Billy we probably wouldn't be in the SEC Championship game last year and this year. There's no finger pointing or anything going on around here. That was always disrupting the team. That's all gone, we're so successful now."

The No. 5 Bulldogs (10-2) have been successful despite that loss in Baton Rouge and on Saturday they get a rematch with the No. 3 Tigers (11-1) in SEC Championship game in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. For Bennett and Jennings, it's a chance at redemption, not that they seem to need any in the eyes of their teammates.

"Until you said that, I had forgotten that was the game Billy struggled in," Coach Mark Richt said earlier this week. "Billy's a great kicker. He's made many, many clutch kicks for us."

Outside the locker room, it's a different story, and Bennett and Jennings realize all eyes will be on them to see if they can erase those blemishes on their record.

"People like to look at certain players and certain plays," Bennett said. "That's something you have to deal with at this level. I don't think it bothers me, and I don't think it bothers Tim."

Bennett hit his first field goal in the first game, a 33-yarder that gave Georgia a 3-0 lead. He then hit a 43-yarder but that play was erased by offsetting penalties. His next attempt sailed wide right and his day never got any better. Early in the second quarter, he missed another one narrowly to the right, and then he hit the left upright on an attempt with 44 seconds left in the first half.

"I just laughed because it couldn't get any worse," he said. "I'm not going to say I wasn't down and out about it. It was a big part of my life that went down the drain for a while."

Bennett quickly got back on track, hitting three of four the next week against Alabama, and, overall, he is having a standout senior season. He leads the nation in field goals per game (2.25) and is second in the SEC in field goal percentage (79.4). He has hit nine in a row and 19 of 22 since the first LSU game.

"I'm definitely more confident going into this game because I've been kicking well lately," he said. "I'm a little more focused."

Bennett's teammates defended him then and continued to do it this week.

"I might mess up five or six times in a game, but you don't see it," defensive end David Pollack said. "Billy has won so many games for us over his career, it's incredible. End of the line, I'd definitely want Billy kicking. There's no doubt. I'd rather Billy kick than any kicker in the country."

Jennings, who let Skyler Green get behind him for a 34-yard touchdown with 1:22 left in the first game, got the same kind of support from his teammates, but it was a different story when he returned home to Orangeburg, S.C.

Although Jennings was crushed after the play, his high school friends took great delight in an ESPN The Magazine picture showing Green's touchdown.

"I was behind him, in the background," Jennings said. "I just took all that and laughed at it. I can't show them it really hurt me because they'll stay on me about it."

Since that game, Jennings has been moved into the starting lineup due to the season-ending injury to Decory Bryant. He was the third corner the last time and was matched up man-to-man against Green when Georgia defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder called a blitz. The Tigers picked up the blitz and gave quarterback Matt Mauck time to roll out and extend the play, leaving Jennings on Green for an unusually long amount of time.

"The time clock in (Jennings) head went off and said, 'This play must be over by now,'" Richt said. "He peeked when he shouldn't have, and he got hurt. It's something that small."

Jennings was inconsolable. He called secondary coach Willie Martinez the next week promising to rededicate himself and not let that happen to him again.

"After the play I took it very personal," he said. "I felt very bad about myself because I let my team down. I was down on myself the whole week."

His teammates in the secondary, who realize they are only just a play away from being in the background of a touchdown photo, have been his staunchest allies.

"None of us got down on him because it could have been any of us," safety Thomas Davis said. "I feel like Tim is really eager to go out against LSU because of what happened. He wants to redeem himself."

Jennings and Bennett both get that opportunity.

"I didn't think I'd get a second chance," Jennings said. "Hopefully, if the last play comes down to it, it'll come down to me making the play this time. It's not so much getting revenge but just coming out with a win."

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