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Freshman blues: Battered Stafford faces tough learning curve

ATHENS — Matthew Stafford has a nasty gash across the bridge of his nose and another cut on his forehead, which sort of sums up the way things have gone for Georgia’s freshman quarterback.
    He’s all beaten up, just like his team.
    ‘‘I knew it would be tough,’’ Stafford said Tuesday, ‘‘but I didn’t think our record would be like this.’’
    On-the-job training is never easy — especially for a quarterback trying to make the lofty jump from high school to the Southeastern Conference. The other guys are much faster. The defensive schemes are more confusing. The offensive playbook is a lot thicker.
    Stafford is paying a high price for his inexperience. Even though he’s started only five of Georgia’s 10 games, he leads the SEC with 12 interceptions. Eight of them have come in the last three games, since coach Mark Richt made it clear that the freshman would be starting the rest of the year.
    The Bulldogs (6-4, 3-4 SEC) have lost four of five, a stunning collapse for a program that captured two SEC championships in Richt’s first five years and thought it was immune to the rebuilding process after four straight 10-win seasons and top-10 finishes in The Associated Press rankings.
    Instead of worrying about titles, Georgia is trying to improve his positioning in the minor-bowl hierarchy. It won’t be easy with remaining games against No. 5 Auburn on Saturday and 19th-ranked Georgia Tech on Nov. 25.
    Stafford has become a convenient focus of this woeful season, though it’s clear he's an immensely talented player who should eventually make a worthy successor to David Greene and D.J. Shockley.
    ‘‘Right now, we’ve just got to keep playing him, keep teaching him, keep training him,’’ Richt said. ‘‘He’s already played a good bit of ball, and I have seen some improvement. There’s no doubt that the experiences he’s living through now are going to serve him well in the future.’’
    For Stafford, the prospect of a brighter future is little hard to see at the moment. He ranks 98th nationally in pass efficiency. He’s thrown three times as many interceptions as touchdowns (four). He’s barely above the Mendoza Line for quarterbacks with a completion rate of 51.6 percent.
    ‘‘I may not be around too much longer if I keep throwing it like this,’’ Stafford said glumly, even though he has a secure grip on the job in this lost season. ‘‘I had the same kind of stuff happen to me in my junior year of high school. When I flipped on the film as a senior, I was just 10-fold better. Hopefully, that kind of stuff happens again. I think it will with time.’’
    Clearly, Stafford isn’t the only one struggling at Georgia. The receivers have dropped numerous passes and are now ravaged by injuries. The Bulldogs are mired near the bottom of the league in rushing yards, an unforeseen development on a team that appeared to be loaded in the backfield (of course, it didn’t help that Thomas Brown, the top rusher the past two seasons, was lost to a season-ending knee injury).
    With Stafford struggling and no one stepping up as a big-time receiver, defenses can simply stack the line, stuff the running game and dare the Bulldogs to beat them in single coverage. For the most part, no one has.
    ‘‘It would be nice if we ran the ball better,’’ Richt said. ‘‘Basically, they’ve locked up our receivers and said, 'Try to run it now. We’ve got more guys than you can block.’ It became much more difficult to run. To get people out of that look, you’ve got to make a play. When you’ve got one-on-one matchups, you ought to be able to get a guy open and catch it.
    ‘‘But we don’t have anybody right now who is really striking much fear into other people’s cornerbacks.’’
    Of course, the quarterback is the guy who gets most of the attention, and Stafford is making far too many rookie mistakes.
    ‘‘I haven’t thrown too many balls into double- and triple-coverage,’’ Stafford said. ‘‘It’s been a lot of one-one-one picks for me. I’ve just been throwing some bad balls. I’m kind of aiming it and not just trusting myself. And I’ve made some bad decisions, too.’’
    Stafford is still hindered by the impatience of youth, which only became worse when the Bulldogs’ season began to fall apart.
    ‘‘The main reason that a young quarterback or any quarterback makes a mistake is because they feel they’ve got to make something happen right now,’’ Richt said. ‘‘Sometimes it’s hard to realize that even though you feel a sense of urgency, you’ve still got to be wise.’’
    Richt isn’t concerned about this season having any sort of lasting impact on Stafford.
    ‘‘He’ll be fine. He’s a strong kid,’’ the coach said. ‘‘Hopefully, we’ll look back and laugh at some of the things that happened this year. But it’s not laughable right now.’’

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