ATHENS — Before every game, Joe Cox reminds himself of all those who doubted whether he was cut out to be Georgia’s quarterback.
“That’s being a competitor,” Cox said Tuesday. “If you have people saying you’re not good, you want to play good.”
After a shaky start at Oklahoma State — not to mention questions about his health — the fifth-year senior has taken giant strides toward winning over the skeptics who wondered how far the No. 21 Bulldogs might fall after losing Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno to the NFL.
Cox threw for 201 yards and two touchdowns in a wild 41-37 victory over South Carolina. He followed that up with one of the great performances in school history, passing for 375 yards and five touchdowns in an even-wackier 51-42 victory at Arkansas last week.
“It’s been pretty crazy,” Cox said, surrounded by reporters in a room beneath the school’s basketball arena. “Obviously, it’s gotten better since week one. We don’t want to turn around and go the other way now. It’s a lot different being in Athens after you win. You go places and everybody wants to pat you on the back. After a loss, you don’t even want to go out of your house.”
Cox has certainly faced plenty of scrutiny in his first three weeks on the job. He came down with the flu just days before the opener and couldn’t even fly to Stillwater with the rest of the team. Even though he refuses to use it as an excuse, the illness likely contributed to his mediocre performance — 15 of 30 for 162 yards with two turnovers — in a 24-10 loss to the Cowboys.
A few days later, reports surfaced that Cox was having shoulder or arm problems and might not even start against South Carolina. Georgia coach Mark Richt quickly shot down any speculation about who was the No. 1 quarterback, but Cox did reveal a long-standing shoulder problem that could not be fixed with surgery.
He doesn’t throw at practice on Wednesdays, hoping to keep his arm strong for the games. So far, it seems to be working for the Bulldogs (2-1), who host Arizona State (2-0) on Saturday night.
Cox was named the offensive player of the week by the Walter Camp Football Foundation after becoming just the fourth quarterback in Georgia history to throw five touchdown passes in a game, following David Green, D.J. Shockley and Stafford.
“It’s awesome to see him put up those type of stats and rise to the occasion,” linebacker Rennie Curran said. “We know he was facing a lot of pressure, with people doubting him and things like that. He just showed his true character and the leadership capabilities that we all knew he had.”
Cox’s performance was all the more satisfying since he waited four long years for this chance. He took a redshirt while watching Shockley lead the Bulldogs to a Southeastern Conference championship in 2005, then got shuffled off to a backup role when Stafford claimed the starting job midway through his freshman season.
Cox patiently played the role of No. 2 until Stafford declared for the NFL draft after his junior season — and wound up being the top overall pick by the Detroit Lions. Moreno, the team’s top running back, also was picked in the first round, leaving Georgia with two big holes to fill.
The loss at Oklahoma State lit up the blogosphere, with Georgia fans openly wondering how bad things might get with a quarterback who doesn’t have Stafford’s size or arm strength. Cox was listening to every word.
“It’s something I say to myself before every game: ‘These people don’t think I’m any good,’” Cox conceded. “It’s something that’s driving our offense, too. After week one, everybody was saying we have a terrible offense, that we don’t have Knowshon and Matthew so it’s the end of the world, that we’re not going to be able to score any points for the rest of the season. Obviously, we wanted to prove people wrong.”
Richt never had any doubt that Cox was the right man for the job.
“Joe has got an outstanding touch,” the coach said. “I’ve seen him do it in practice for years. I’m not surprised he was able to make some of those throws because I’ve seen him do it. Of course, until you do it in a game, it doesn’t really mean as much.”
Cox just wants to get as much as he can out of this season, his one and only as the starter.
“When it’s your last chance, you definitely want to make it memorable,” he said. “It’s been an awesome year so far. It’s been a lot of fun. I want to continue to make those fond memories, those things I can look back on and be real proud of.”