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September 13, 2007

Stafford hears the boo birds

The offense was held to four field goals.

The quarterback had 19 completions, 25 incompletions and an interception.

Was Georgia's 16-12 loss to South Carolina last Saturday just a bad night for Matthew Stafford and the offense, or was it the first sign that the quarterback and other starters are still too young to deliver consistent strong play?

``It was just a bad night,'' said Stafford.

It marked the first time in six years since a 14-9 loss to South Carolina, also in Athens, in 2001 that Georgia had been held without a touchdown. That was Mark Richt's first season in Athens.

Georgia fans may not want to believe the No. 23 Bulldogs, who play Western Carolina on Saturday, are back to their 2001 status of starting over on offense. The evidence indicates the 2007 Bulldogs are still young:

Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, 33, is in his first full year of calling the plays.

Stafford, a sophomore, has made only 10 starts, so he still hasn't played a full season.

The offensive line includes a freshman, Trinton Sturdivant, at left tackle and a redshirt freshman, Chris Davis, at right guard. The right guard, junior college transfer Scott Haverkamp, is in his first year in the program.

Georgia's top rusher in each of its two games is another redshirt freshman, Knowshon Moreno.

The offense certainly has the look of a unit that is starting over. But it is Stafford who will bear the brunt of the critical spotlight, in part because his strong play the week before raised expectations.

Stafford was 18-for-24 passing for 234 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in Georgia's 35-14 opening win over Oklahoma State.

``He played so much last year and he played so well in the first game, you're thinking well, he's a veteran and he's going to play just lights-out from here on in,'' said coach Mark Richt. ``That's what you hope. But he is still learning a few things here and there and still getting comfortable in some ways.''

That learning process could move at a slower pace, thanks to the young offensive line.

Stafford was sacked three times by South Carolina, and Richt said the pressure of the pass rush affected the quarterback.

``I think the fact that the protection wasn't real clean in the beginning, I think that affected him,'' Richt said. ``He can't allow that to happen.''

Perhaps the most difficult challenge for Stafford is to have faith in his line even when he's taking hits. Richt said Stafford must set up in the proper pocket position so he's set to make good throws.

Against South Carolina, too many of Stafford's throws were hurried and off-target too high and too hard or behind his receivers.

``He's got to make sure that he trusts his protection every time he drops back,'' Richt said. ``You have to expect it will be there, and if it's not, you have to react at that point. But you have to be fundamentally sound to where if everything is where it should be, you're where you should be, too.

``A couple of times he didn't get settled like he should. He didn't stick his foot in the ground and get set up.''

Added Richt: ``I think he'd tell you he had an off day with his accuracy, and that was just one of our issues.''

By Tuesday, it was difficult to tell if Stafford was rattled by the hits from South Carolina or more blows delivered in the form of criticism from fans.

``It doesn't matter what people think to me,'' Stafford said. ``Personally, the only guys I'm trying to please are the guys on my team and myself.

``I'm just trying to get us a win, you know what I'm saying? I'm not trying to please anybody but Coach Richt, Coach Bobo and our players and myself.''

Stafford is established as the starter, leaving the offensive line as the big concern of the preseason. The only starters with any major college experience are center Fernando Velasco and right tackle Chester Adams.

Richt said the line had some first-half troubles, but he pinned the loss on the skill players.

Richt said the young linemen are ``learning as they go.''

``It took them a while to adjust,'' he said. ``I will say the second half they blocked much better. We ran the ball better and we pass-protected better in the second half. As a matter of fact, I thought if our skill guys came through in the second half as well as the line played, we probably would have won it or at least gone into overtime in that game.''

Stafford has been the only quarterback to play in each of the first two games, though Richt has said he wants to play backup Joe Cox.

Tight end Tripp Chandler says he respects Stafford as a veteran.

``Personally, I do, just the way he understands the game,'' Chandler said.

``Matt is a great football player. He might still make some young mistakes, but there are not many people I know who understand the game like he does. He's constantly drawing up plays and seeing things and telling us things in the huddle, what to look out for even before it happens.''

When asked where he has been told by coaches that he must improve, Stafford said ``There's all sorts of stuff.

``There's something new on every play that can be done better,'' he said. ``Nobody is ever perfect. I'm just trying to work hard to get better.''



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