- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- For four years, Georgia kicker Billy Bennett has been as dependable as Mom's cooking, as automatic as direct deposit. In 38 games before Saturday, Bennett made nearly four of every five field goals. In fourth quarters alone, Bennett has attempted 15 kicks, making 14. When Bennett ran on the field, the opposing team's kickoff return unit grabbed their helmets.
And then came Saturday at LSU, before a Death Valley record crowd of 92,251. Bennett, who had missed two field goals in a game only four times in his career, missed three in the first half. No. 10 LSU came back to beat No. 7 Georgia, 17-10, because of a defensive front that harassed Dawg quarterback David Greene all afternoon, and because of a 34-yard touchdown pass from Matt Mauck to Skyler Green with 1:22 to play.
That's not how Bennett saw it.
"I mean, I missed nine points. We lost by seven," Bennett said.
That's how kickers view the world. It is not a view shared by Bennett's coaches nor his teammates. On any given football play, 11 players must work in concert to make the play effective. That may be true on a field goal, too. But that's not Bennett saw it.
"Just listen to me," Bennett said. "It was not the snapper. It was not the holder. It was not the other team. I missed the field goals."
Someone asked Bennett if he had ever missed three field goals in a game.
"I don't think I've ever missed three in practice," he said.
It was Bennett who made a 43-yarder with 5:19 to play to beat Clemson, 31-28, last season. It was Bennett who made a 32-yarder with 38 seconds to play to win at Alabama, 29-28, last season. Bennett had attempted nine extra points and six field goals this year, and made them all.
"He's the best kicker I've ever seen," Georgia tailback Tyson Browning said. "We have a one-minute drill in practice. The team in the drill has to make a field goal. If we do, we don't run. We can count on Billy."
For the first 25 minutes of the game, Georgia's offense toyed with LSU, and had three points to show for it. The Bulldogs could have put the Tigers away. Georgia held LSU without a first down on six consecutive possessions. In the first half, Georgia pushed inside of LSU's 30-yard-line five times. Quarterback David Greene fumbled on a scramble inside the 10. OK, stuff happens.
But Bennett missing three field goals?
The way Georgia's first half went, if it had been raining cars, the Dawgs would have gotten a '63 Rambler.
Bennett closed out Georgia's second drive with a 33-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.
In the final minute of the first half, Bennett made a 43-yard field goal. He and his kicking team trotted off the field, patting helmets, feeling good about a 6-0 lead.
But yellow flags lay all over the field. LSU had 12 men on the field. Georgia was penalized for an illegal formation. According to Bennett, the Dawgs had only 10 men on the field. When the penalties offset, the points came off the board and Bennett had to kick again.
The ball sailed about a yard wide of the right upright. Bennett jumped and appeared to yell in frustration. In retrospect, he said, he wasn't prepared to go back on the field.
"It tests how mentally strong you are," Bennett said. "You don't get to do your routine. It's one thing to run out on the field and swing my leg, get set, snap, hold, kick. It just didn't feel smooth. I wasn't mentally there. I didn't handle it well. I didn't know the penalties were going to offset each other. I don't know crap about football. I didn't know what to do."
This, too, is how kickers think. Emotions aside, Bennett thought the original 43-yarder should have counted.
"If they've got more men than we do, and we don't have enough, we did a dadgum good job," Bennett said. "Football is a funny sport."
Tell the Dawgs about it. In the second quarter, Bennett's 42-yard attempt sailed about a foot wide of the right upright. In the final minute of the half, a 36-yarder slammed into the left upright and fell away. Two misses later, Bennett didn't jump and he didn't yell.
"I just kind of started laughing after awhile," Bennett said. "It couldn't get any worse."
At 5-foot-8, 170, with a mop of wavy black hair and light blue eyes, Bennett fits the physical bill for kickers. His left leg swings fast, and the ball sails high. In the third quarter, LSU kicker Ryan Gaudet, a 5-foot-6, 155-pound freshman, attempted a 47-yarder. The ball barely got higher than the crossbar. It sailed about 47 yards, two feet. But it went over the crossbar.
Some guys are Jamie Moyer. Some guys are Randy Johnson. On Saturday, Georgia's Big Unit got shelled.
"I don't think a good kicker just forgets about it," Bennett said. "He knows how to handle it when it happens."
Someone pointed out that Bennett couldn't know how to handle this, because it had never happened before.
"I know how to handle a miss," Bennett said. "I don't know how to handle this. Maybe this is the true test."
Down 10-3, with an offense that hadn't sniffed field goal range, Greene tossed a screen pass to Browning, who took it 93 yards for a touchdown. It tied the longest pass in Georgia history, the legendary Buck Belue to Lindsay Scott touchdown against Florida in the national championship season of 1980. The Dawgs had tied the Tigers with 4:25 to play.
Bennett thought he might have a chance at redemption in overtime. LSU's Green redeemed himself instead. Green, after dropping three passes in the first half, shook loose from man coverage and caught the winning touchdown pass.
For Bennett, redemption will have to come on another Saturday, with another game on the line. He began the game 63-of-80 (.786). He finished it 64-of-84 (.762). It's only a slight drop, unless you're on the field watching your kicks sail wide. As Georgia coach Mark Richt walked out of the locker room, he chuckled at a question about his kicker.
"I'd take Billy Bennett every day," Richt said. "We've been taking him for granted. He's made so many big kicks for us. I still believe in Billy Bennett."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
4dBrian Bennett and Josh Moyer