ATHENS, Ga. -- October has been a cruel month for Michael Bennett, as knee injuries suffered early in the month in each of the last two seasons knocked the receiver out of Georgia's lineup.
Luckily for the Bulldogs, Bennett was able to return for this month after a meniscus injury suffered in the Tennessee game cost him only two games. A year ago, an ACL tear suffered in practice the week of the South Carolina game forced Bennett to miss the remainder of the fall just as he emerged as the Bulldogs' leading receiver.
“I was kind of bummed because I feel like every time in early October, I'm out,” Bennett said after making five catches for 59 yards in Saturday's 23-20 win against Florida. “But it was good to come back in this November game. Freshman year when I was here, it was awesome to get a win, to come back and beat them. There's no better feeling than beating the Gators.”
For his injury-depleted position group, it was awesome to get one of its most important players back on the field. The Bulldogs passed for a season-low 114 yards in their previous game, a loss to Vanderbilt, with Bennett sidelined temporarily and Justin Scott-Wesley and Malcolm Mitchell out for the season with ACL tears.
Things weren't completely back to normal against Florida. Chris Conley was still out with an ankle sprain suffered in the Vandy game and Scott-Wesley and Mitchell obviously won't be back until 2014, but Bennett and returning tailback Todd Gurley both contributed heavily in the passing game and junior college transfer Jonathon Rumph played for the first time after a hamstring ailment forced him to miss the first half of the season.
Regaining some of their weapons, with Conley still expected to return this season, has the Bulldogs thinking that things are looking up.
“We're going to improve every week, improve every day, really,” said senior receiver Rantavious Wooten. “We're going to exceed everybody's expectations, because some people have said whatever about us because we lost some guys, but in this locker room, we know what we're capable of.”
Conley's return won't occur this Saturday against Appalachian State, according to Bulldogs coach Mark Richt. The following week's game against Auburn might be a long shot.
“I would say it's very doubtful for him to be playing this week,” Richt said on his Monday call-in show. “I would hope that he'll be able to play against Auburn, but even that's kind of hard to say right now. He's still on crutches and has got a long ways to go. Certainly he won't be ready this week.”
Regardless, the Bulldogs moved the ball much more effectively through the air against the Gators – even though Richt said Florida's secondary features “the best cover corners in the league and maybe in the country.”
Bennett played a major role in that improvement, as did senior Rhett McGowan, who made a 23-yard catch in the final seconds of the second quarter to set up a Marshall Morgan field goal at the end of the first half.
McGowan made just as big a play in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, when he caught a third-and-7 pass from Aaron Murray and squirted between a group of Florida defenders for a 7-yard gain that extended the Bulldogs' game-ending drive.
“That last play where he threw it to me, it was just my number was called and it's a play that we'd been practicing all week and we were able to execute it,” said McGowan, who had three catches for 43 yards. “I'm so thankful we got the first down and we were able to get one more first down and finish the game out.”
With Conley still out and Rumph finally able to play, Richt said the Bulldogs hope he can make a long-awaited impact. Rumph was the top receiver and No. 7 overall prospect on ESPN's Junior College 100 when he enrolled in January, but is still waiting to make his first career catch.
If he can establish himself before Conley returns, Georgia's receiving corps can still finish the season as a productive group despite the injuries that created some extremely lean times for a couple weeks in October.
“Hopefully we can get some balls thrown his direction just so he can get excited about catching some balls again,” Richt said of Rumph. “It's been a while for him and you catch a bunch in practice and you hope to have a shot to catch a few in the games.
“He was here in the spring and had a really good spring game and I'm sure he's anxious to get a chance to catch a ball. So we've still got to keep working on assignments and blocking and all that kind of thing, but hopefully there'll be an opportunity to get a ball thrown his way, or two or three or whatever. Hopefully he'll have a big day.”