Stafford Returns to Auburn

ATHENS – During the timeout with two minutes left to play in the game, Mark Richt issued his quarterback a stern reminder. Georgia trailed Kentucky by just three points, and it was in range for an easy field goal. If the play breaks down, Richt warned, it was up to Matthew Stafford to throw the ball away.

Stafford gave Richt a simple "Yes, sir" and headed into the huddle. The ball was snapped, the pressure came quickly, and Richt's advice was already forgotten.

Stafford bounced out of the pocket, evading defenders and scanning the end zone for an open receiver.

"He was breaking tackles," running back Knowshon Moreno said, "and when he threw the ball, I was just kind of watching the ball just spinning in the air, and I was like, ‘Man, what's going to happen?'"

Stafford zipped a pass into the end zone, past four Kentucky defenders and into the outstretched hands of A.J. Green for a go-ahead touchdown.

It was the perfect illustration of how far Stafford has come since his first season at Georgia, but also a perfect reminder of that quarterback he once was.

"I was screaming at him as he was scrambling, and then when we scored, I was relieved," Richt said. "I didn't say a word to him other than, ‘Good job.' That's Matthew. He's a competitor, and he wants to win."

Since his first snaps at Georgia two years ago, Stafford has been a competitor, but this week marks the anniversary of the game in which his performance on the field first matched his competitive fire, Richt said.

The last time Stafford stepped onto the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium, his team had lost four of its past five games. In his previous three games, Stafford had thrown eight interceptions. Hours before his unranked Bulldogs kicked off against No. 5 Auburn, Richt wondered how the offense would even be able to score on the fearsome Tigers' defense.

By the time the game had ended and Georgia ran off the field with a 37-15 win, however, Stafford had shed the label of turnover-prone gunslinger and become the on-field general Richt knew he could be.

"That was a confidence builder for me I know," Stafford said. "Just being able to go into another team's house that was ranked No. 5 and be able to get a win was big."

As Stafford prepares for his return trip this week, there aren't any doubts whether he can lead Georgia's offense to a win over Auburn. In fact, he has a chance Saturday to become the first Bulldogs quarterback to beat the Tigers in three straight seasons since Johnny Rauch topped Auburn four times from 1945 to 1948.

That first meeting, however, was the turning point.

It was the first time Stafford showed he could avoid costly turnovers, Richt said, and it was the moment the then-freshman moved from thinking he could win a big game to knowing he could do it.

"Everyone knew the talent he had, but of course as a freshman, players are going to struggle," fullback Brannan Southerland said. "Then actually went out and did it, and after a whole offseason, he came back his sophomore year and was just better and better."

In his two career games against the Tigers, Stafford has completed 25-of-39 passes for 456 yards, three touchdowns and one interception, while adding another 71 rushing yards and another touchdown on the ground.

Just why he has had so much success against Auburn's traditionally stingy defense, however, remains a mystery to the junior quarterback.

"Just good game plans, I guess," Stafford said. "There's not one thing that we match up with better at one position than they do."

This season, Georgia's offense has matched up well against almost every team it has faced.

When Stafford threw for 219 yards against Auburn two years ago, it was their first time he had thrown for more than 110 yards without throwing an interception. This season, he has accomplished that feat six times, including last week's 376-yard, three-touchdown performance against Kentucky.

"Their quarterback is as good as I've seen in college football in a long time," Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville said.

That was a sentiment shared by a number of Auburn players this week, but it's something Stafford's teammates have known for a while. Still, that game against Auburn two years ago proved Stafford is always capable of a few surprises, and Moreno thinks the best is yet to come for his quarterback.

"He's really good right now, but I'm pretty sure he can still get better," Moreno said. "He's just doing an awesome job for us right now, the way he's reading defenses and making plays for us when we need it."

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