ATLANTA — College underclassmen have until Jan. 15 to enter the 2009 NFL draft.
Matthew Stafford says he won’t need that much time to make his plans for 2009.
After winning MVP honors in No. 16 Georgia’s 24-12 Capital One Bowl win over Michigan State on Thursday, Stafford said he’s struggling to decide if he’ll return for his senior season, but then the third-year starting quarterback added he expected to have his decision soon.
“I am going to take this next couple of days -- it’s really not too much time -- to think about it and figure out what I want to do,” Stafford said.
Georgia’s plans for 2009 also await the NFL draft decision of running back Knowshon Moreno.
“I’ll celebrate the victory now, and make my decision later, after I’ve had time and talked to my family, and my coaches,” Moreno said after the game. “I wasn’t even thinking about that today. I’ll think about it later. Walking off the field, I was just happy to celebrate the win. I wasn’t thinking about anything else.”
Stafford and Moreno are one of the most productive quarterback-running back tandems in school history.
Stafford passed for 250 yards and three touchdowns to lead Georgia (10-3) over Michigan State, capping the Bulldogs’ sixth 10-win season in eight years under coach Mark Richt. His 3,459 yards passing this season are the second-highest total in school history, behind Eric Zeier’s 3,525 yards in 1993.
Moreno rushed for 1,400 yards this season. The only players to rush for more yards in a season for Georgia are Herschel Walker and Garrison Hearst. As a third-year sophomore, Moreno also is eligible for the draft.
In possibly his last college game, Moreno was held to only 62 yards rushing but he added a career-high six catches for 63 yards, including a 21-yard touchdown reception.
Stafford and Moreno are projected as first-round picks. Stafford could be picked high in the first round.
It would be a surprise if either announces plans to return in 2009.
Even Richt seemed to be thinking of Stafford as a player who was finishing his college career. Richt thanked his seniors after the game, mentioned senior defensive tackle Corvey Irvin and then said “Of course Matt has done great things for us too, and I am proud of him too.”
Stafford said his three years in Athens have been “great” and “an awesome time.”
“It’s something that I am contemplating continuing,” he said. “Obviously there is the lure of the NFL but to tell you the truth, I am 50-50 right now and I really don’t know what I want to do. I love playing for Georgia and it has been an outstanding time.”
Georgia’s hopes in 2009 would be boosted by the return of Stafford or Moreno, but even with the two the Bulldogs suffered key Southeastern Conference losses to Alabama and Florida that crushed the team’s championship hopes.
Richt on Thursday called 2008 “a very good football season for us,” but even with the bowl win, the 10-3 finish was a disappointment for fans whose hopes were raised by the team’s preseason No. 1 ranking.
The high preseason hopes were doomed by defensive breakdowns in big games: a 41-30 loss to Alabama, a 49-10 loss to Florida and a 45-42 loss to Georgia Tech in the final regular-season game.
Georgia gave up 21 points in the second quarter against Alabama, 21 points in the third quarter against Florida and 26 points in the third quarter against Georgia Tech.
Criticisms of the defense and coordinator Willie Martinez reached a peak after the loss to Georgia Tech. The defense regrouped against Michigan State to record six sacks and hold first-team All-American Javon Ringer and the Spartans to 31 yards rushing on 34 carries.
“I thought it was fantastic,” said Richt of the defense. “To be sitting there, only down 6-3 at halftime was just a great tribute to our defense. They stopped them at least the first three drives in a row. Even when they got the first field goal, which I think was off of that turnover, they got a stop there. They kept us in it until the offense started to find their way. When the offense did (find their way) we separated a little bit.”
Linebacker Rennie Curran said the defense can take momentum from the bowl game into next season.
“We learned a lot about ourselves that we can carry over into next season,” Curran said. “This game was huge for the future of this team. We came here and practiced hard, very physical, and it carried right into the game. That’s a good lesson.
“Everyone stayed focused all week, and it showed in the game. That’s something the young guys can build on. I think the potential here is just great.”
If Stafford and Moreno enter the draft, Georgia’s losses on offense would be significant. Receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, fullback Brannan Southerland and tight end Tripp Chandler are seniors.
Georgia’s championship hopes took a hit even before the season began. Offensive tackle Trinton Sturdivant suffered a season-ending knee injury before the season. Georgia also lost its top defensive tackle, Jeff Owens, for the season with a knee injury. They were only two of 19 players with season-ending injuries.