Stafford Goes Back to Where it all Started

ATHENS – It was two years ago at Williams-Brice Stadium that the Matthew Stafford era began at Georgia.

Starting quarterback Joe Tereshinski left Georgia's game against South Carolina with a first-half injury, and Stafford – a true freshman with only a handful of snaps under his belt – was handed the task of leading the Bulldogs to a win.

It was just minutes before the game that Stafford even learned he might play.

"Right before kickoff, coach came up to me and was like, ‘You're the second guy to go in,' " Stafford said. "I was like, ‘Thanks, that would have helped maybe a couple days ago.' "

Georgia makes its first return trip to South Carolina on Saturday, and this time there won't be any question about who's running the offense. Two years later, this is Stafford's team, and he hardly recognizes that overmatched kid who made just enough plays to lead Georgia to an 18-0 win over the Gamecocks in 2006.

"I've watched that game a bunch of times," Stafford said. "It's tough to realize what you were thinking at some points, but that's what being young is about, I guess."

Stafford won't say the growth process has been a simple one. He was benched in favor of Joe Cox just two weeks after the win at South Carolina that season, and he has had his share of ups and downs since then.

What has remained consistent, however, is Georgia's record. Despite his mistakes, Stafford found ways to win games. Now a junior, he has posted a career record of 19-4 as a starter.

"Playing in a bunch of SEC games, playing in a bunch of big games," Stafford said, "you just realize what you need to do to win."

Those lessons came gradually, Stafford said, but to look back at film from his early games makes him cringe.

"What I was doing back then was bad, throwing the ball into coverage all the time, really not making good decisions," he said.

It's that decision making that separates the new Matthew Stafford from the old one.

His first season, head coach Mark Richt couldn't help but hold his breath each time the ball was snapped into Stafford's hands. He had all the physical tools, Richt said, but any time a true freshman is playing quarterback, the possibilities for a mistake seem endless.

His sophomore season, Stafford made strides, but he played behind an offensive line with little experience, and many of his bad decisions were a product of quick reactions to a defender in his face. For the second straight year, he completed fewer than 56 percent of his passes.

Even with a year of playing time under his belt, South Carolina got the better of Stafford last season. It was a loss that prevented Georgia from winning the SEC East and possibly a earning a shot at a national title.

During the offseason, Stafford decided it was his turn to take ownership of the Bulldogs' offense. Many of the seniors he'd played with his first two years were gone. This was his team, and he was going to be a leader.

"He's just dedicated himself this offseason, and everybody's just rallying behind him," wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi said.

Stafford worked to get stronger physically, but more importantly, he studied every intricacy of his offense and the opponents' defenses. He learned the game inside and out.

"He knows the defense where if something's called, and it's not even something we're talking about, he knows a certain play would work good against that defense, and he knows what to do," Cox said.

Stafford now has the full trust of his offensive teammates, a far cry from that first game against South Carolina two years ago.

His numbers this season have been near perfect. He's completing more than 63 percent of his passes. He has thrown four touchdowns without an interception. He has led Georgia's offense to consecutive games of more than 500 yards of total offense.

Each snap, at the line of scrimmage, Stafford is in control. He's no longer worried about figuring out what he has to do. He's busy reading the defense and letting his teammates know what to do.

"Most teams will call their cadence, and then you see their quarterback look to the coach over and over and over, but we don't do that," Richt said. "We let Matthew decide because he understands it, and he also has a better view of what's going on and we trust his judgment."

His freshman year, Richt said Stafford was able to check out of a play at the line of scrimmage on a few plays a game. This season, he's doing it before almost every snap.

Against Central Michigan last Saturday, Stafford checked out of a play and into a run that took Georgia's rusher right into the face of a Chippewas' blitz. It was the first time Richt could recall Stafford making the wrong decision.

Stafford considered that decision a failure. Richt chalked it up as inevitable considering the number of decisions Stafford makes each game.

"At least half the plays if not more, he's making some kind of decision whether it's a protection decision or a run-pass decision," Richt said.

Stafford wouldn't have it any other way.

Watching the film of his struggles against South Carolina two years ago is a good reminder of how far he's come. Back then, Stafford was just a cog in the machine. Now, he's the engine that drives the offense.

"I feel like I'm doing a whole lot," Stafford said, "and I like having that kind of a say in what we're doing."

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