ATHENS — Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford understands how to win games in oppressive heat.
A third-year starter with a 20-4 career record for the No. 3 Bulldogs, Stafford learned how to run an offense on the baking suburban football fields of Dallas.
And after enduring conditions he considers the hottest of his career in last week’s narrow win at South Carolina, Stafford isn’t so much concerned about Georgia’s visit to Arizona State on Saturday.
“I’ve never really cramped like that in a game or in my life,” Stafford said this week. “I felt like I just couldn’t stop sweating. I couldn’t put enough (fluids) in me to replenish what was going out. I don’t think it could get too much worse for me.”
South Carolina, which has the nation’s top-ranked pass defense, didn’t help, sacking Stafford four times and making him hurry no less than five throws. Stafford’s receivers dropped three third-down passes in the first half, and Georgia’s running game finished the game with an average of just 3 yards per carry.
Bulldogs coach Mark Richt has hinted at more changes among the line’s starting five.
“We weren’t shocked that we struggled,” Richt said. “We had four guys who had never started. They are really young. But if you remember last year, I was concerned about the line and the fact that it would take a while to grow up. I was hoping we could win enough games early to be in the race at the end.”
In Arizona State (2-1), Georgia will face one of the Pac-10’s best pass rushers in Dexter Davis, a right end with 20.5 sacks in 29 career starts. Linebacker Travis Goethel, safety Troy Nolan and left end Luis Vasquez are the other leaders on a defense that’s allowed 17.7 points to rank third in the conference.
To counter some of the desert’s effects on his team, Richt plans to make abundant personnel changes, a custom he started three weeks ago. The Bulldogs used 69 players against Georgia Southern, 68 against Central Michigan and 61 last week.
“We want to make sure we’re substituting heavily in the first half,” Richt said, “to have enough energy to finish strong.”
Energy seemed to wane as the second half wore on at South Carolina, but Georgia (3-0) ended the long afternoon without a turnover, and Stafford avoided an interception for the third straight week.
Stafford believes his line, which lost left tackle Trinton Sturdivant to a season-ending knee injury last month, is improving every day. Right guard Cordy Glenn is a true freshman. Sophomore Chris Davis, a 13-game starter last year, moved from guard to center in the spring.
“They may step (occasionally) with the wrong foot or (make a) simple (mistake) like that, but they are getting after it, and that’s good,” he said. “As long as they are doing that, I’ve got no complaints.”
Stafford just wants to keep the Bulldogs, who have a 10-game winning streak, from having a major letdown. As long as Georgia comes home with a fourth victory and avoids significant injuries, Stafford isn’t going to worry about potential distractions like where they rank in the AP Top 25, which debuted the Bulldogs at No. 1 last month but dropped them to second and third over the last two weeks.
“I don’t care,” Stafford said. “People are going to talk and say what they want to say. We are just worried about playing football the best we can and trying to get wins.”