By PAUL NEWBERRY
ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — After waiting almost 15 months for this moment, JT Daniels took a knee and soaked up the cheers from the socially distanced crowd.
There were only about 20,000 fans at Sanford Stadium, but it sounded more like the usual 92,000.
“JT! JT! JT!” they chanted over and over again.
Making quite a debut between the hedges, Daniels threw for 401 yards and four touchdowns as No. 13 Georgia held on for a 31-24 victory over Mississippi State on Saturday night.
Playing for the first time since the 2019 opener with Southern Cal, Daniels became the third quarterback to start for the Bulldogs (5-2, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) this season.
It looks like they’ve finally found their guy.
“That’s the first time I’ve taken snaps since August 31, 2019, in a whole other part of the country,” Daniels said. “It still hasn’t really sunk in yet that I got to play football again.”
The transfer from USC didn’t just play — he delivered one big moment after another, capped by a 40-yard touchdown pass to Kearis Jackson that broke a 24-24 tie with 9:50 remaining.
What made it more impressive: Jackson and George Pickens had dropped potential TD passes on back-to-back plays, and a holding penalty left Georgia with third-and-20 .
But Jackson slipped behind the secondary in the middle of the field, and Daniels spotted him to finally finish off undermanned Mississippi State (2-5, 2-5).
Daniels became the first Georgia quarterback to pass for more than 400 yards since Aaron Murray against Auburn in 2013 — and the first to ever do it in his debut.
Asked if he could’ve predicted such a performance in his coming-out with the Bulldogs, Daniels replied, “Absolutely. It’s something you visualize and dream about.”
Freshman Jermaine Burton was Daniels’ favorite receiver, hauling in eight passes for 197 yards — including TD catches of 18 and 48 yards, not to mention another grab of 49 yards.
Burton had just 130 yards receiving through the first six games of the season as Georgia struggled to get its passing game going while Daniels watched from the bench.
Pickens also hauled in a 4-yard scoring pass and finished with eight receptions for 87 yards.
Daniels’ teammates have seen his skills in practice.
“That guy, the ball just pops from his hand,” offensive tackle Jamaree Salyer said. “It makes my job a lot easier. I’m happy when the ball’s going 50 yards and I only have to block one time.”
Daniels had to do it all through the air because Georgia’s running game was totally stifled, finishing with just 8 yards when three sacks were factored into the numbers.
Mississippi State, which had lost four of five games since a shocking upset of defending national champion LSU in the season opener, went toe-to-toe with Georgia most of the night behind freshman quarterback Will Rogers, making his second straight start.
Spreading the ball around to 10 receivers in the “Air Raid” offense, Rogers completed 41 of 52 passes for 336 yards, including Jaden Walley hauling in a pass and turning the corner for a 51-yard touchdown. Dillon Johnson added two rushing TDs for Mississippi State.
“We knew we belonged here,” Walley said.
One of the nation’s top high school prospects in 2018, Daniels earned Southern Cal’s starting job as a freshman. But he tore up a knee in the opener of his sophomore season, missing the rest of the year.
With the Trojans planning to go in a different direction at quarterback, Daniels transferred to Georgia and was granted immediate eligibility in the battle to replace three-year starter Jake Fromm.
The newcomer didn’t take a snap until the seventh game of the season, after both Stetson Bennett and D’Wan Mathis got a crack at the job.
It will be hard to get Daniels off the field now.
After enduring a string of defections and opt-outs along with an outbreak of positive COVID-19 tests, Mississippi State brought only 59 players on the trip to Athens.
“A really good effort and I think that this is the best game we played this year,” coach Mike Leach said. “I was very proud of the way our guys played.”
Mississippi State: After leading a victory over Vanderbilt, Rogers turned in another solid performance against Georgia. The freshman seems to have a stranglehold on the quarterback job after senior K.J. Costello started the first five games.
“We’ve got a bunch of young guys who are getting better, and they’re going to continue to get better,” Leach said. “We played extremely hard and I think well for the most part.”
Georgia: Daniels’ stunning performance will surely leave Bulldog fans wondering why it took so long for coach Kirby Smart to put him in an quarterback. Georgia has only a slim chance of getting back to the SEC championship game, but it might have been different if Smart had made the call to Daniels sooner in the season.
Smart said he totally understands those who would question his decision to hold out Daniels until the seventh game.
“Absolutely,” the coach said. “But decisions are made based on what gives us the best opportunity to win. A lot of that has to do with JT’s mobility (coming off the knee injury) and Stetson’s play. When he struggled, we had to look somewhere else. JT took advantage of his opportunity.”
Mississippi State: Makes the short trip to Oxford to face state rival Ole Miss next Saturday in the Egg Bowl. The Bulldogs will be seeking their third straight win over the Rebels.
Georgia: Travels to Columbia to face South Carolina in the Thanksgiving week slot that was usually reserved for the Dawgs’ rivalry game against Georgia Tech. The teams aren’t meeting this season with the SEC playing a league-only schedule.