Stafford looking for a balanced game

ATHENS – Georgia has reached the feast-or-famine portion of its season, and nobody does feast-or-famine like quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Having virtually eliminated themselves from the Southeastern Conference race, thanks in part to youth at quarterback, the Bulldogs' season hangs on salvaging a marquee win or two. And Stafford, the gunslinger from Texas, clearly is the player most capable of making that happen -- or of handing any opponent an easy victory.

"We're growing with him," Coach Mark Richt said. "He's certainly making his share of mistakes, but he's also making some nice plays, and he's growing into quite a player."

Stafford, who has played in all eight games, is 67-of-125 passing for 849 yards, three touchdowns and a glaring seven interceptions. He'll make the fourth start of his career Saturday when Georgia (6-2, 3-2 SEC) takes on the No. 9 Gators (6-1, 4-1).

"He really has a great arm," Florida co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "It's almost too good right now. He's throwing that thing like he's trying to throw through people at times."

But, Mattison acknowledges, "the thing he gives them is he can make plays."

All of Stafford's qualities, good and bad, were on display against Mississippi State last week. Having put the team's future in Stafford's hands, Richt opened the playbook, putting the freshman in the shotgun and running four-wide receiver sets more often than not. The result: three interceptions, two touchdowns and a three-point win.

"I know I was probably a little too free with him, but I want him to grow up, and you don't grow up a lot just handing the ball off every down," Richt said. "I wanted him to experience some more football, experience more time in the pocket, just the whole decision-making process of a passing quarterback."

Against Florida, Stafford will have to strike a difficult balance between making enough plays to win and not making the kind of decisions that have resulted in him having more interceptions than five full-time starters in the SEC.

"I'm definitely going to be more conscious of (taking care of the ball) for sure, but I can't let it slow down my thinking," he said. "I've got to see what I see and play ball. That's what I've grown up doing and what's natural. You can't think out there too much, you'll probably make more mistakes that way than you will just reacting."

Richt doesn't know fully what to expect from Stafford in the biggest game of his career, he said. Veteran quarterbacks, the coach said, can be counted on to throw the ball certain places in certain situations. Young quarterbacks, on the other hand, can be counted on only to surprise.

"But sometimes you make plays when you're doing the wrong thing," Richt said. "He's just a talent that is getting better, and I don't know exactly how he's going to play. Some of that is fun and exciting, but, on the other hand, we have to make sure we're valuing the football."

The Gators won't change their game plan because of Stafford's youth, Mattison said. Stafford hopes he won't change his approach, either. His previous three starts have come against unranked UAB, Colorado and Vanderbilt.

"I hope to not feel any different," he said. "I really don't think I will. I've played in some big games, don't get me wrong, it was high school, but I know what it's about. I'm sure this one is going to be just that much more intense, but I'm excited. I love these type of games. I love this kind of opportunity to go out there and show the country how we play here at Georgia."

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