ORLANDO, Fla. — With about 90 seconds left on the game clock, a chant erupted from the Georgia fans that filled the stands at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla. Matthew Stafford had heard it before.
“One more year. One more year.”
Throughout the course of the week leading up to Georgia’s 24-12 win over Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl, Stafford had answered dozens of questions about his future beyond Thursday’s game, but even as he soaked in the enthusiastic pleas of more than 30,000 Georgia fans begging him to stay for his senior season, he was only concerned with staying in the moment.
“I’m just blessed to be out here right now and to get this trophy, the way we played,” Stafford said as he held up the MVP trophy following a 250-yard, three-touchdown performance. “I’m going to go home and think about it, but right now I’m going to celebrate this win.”
It was a win Georgia had waited all season to celebrate — a game in which there were no explanations needed for mental gaffes, undisciplined play or a failure to execute. It was a win the Bulldogs hoped would erase the bitterness of a season marked by a failure to meet the highest of expectations.
Georgia had lost two of its final four regular-season games, watched title hopes disappear and heard endless criticism, but Thursday’s win was about ending on a high note. Whether it marked the finale to Stafford’s 2009 season or his college career, however, remains to be seen.
“It’s going to be an extremely hard decision for me,” Stafford said. “Obviously there is the lure of the NFL, but to tell you the truth, I’m 50-50 right now, and I don’t know what I want to do.”
The same is true for tailback Knowshon Moreno, whose 21-yard touchdown pass from Stafford was the final score in a game that offered little offense early and a burst of success late, giving fans a chance to cheer the Bulldogs’ dynamic duo for what might have been the final time.
Moreno said he is going home to New Jersey today to discuss his future with his family, but he had no timetable for when an announcement might come.
While neither player was ready to talk about their futures, both played a role in the team’s goal of announcing a change in attitude to critics following a season that began with a No. 1 ranking but fell well short of early expectations.
In the first half, Stafford struggled mightily, completing just 6-of-14 passes for 71 yards and an interception, but the defense held its ground.
After allowing 38 points or more in four of its past five games, Georgia’s defense was up to the challenge of slowing Michigan State and its star running back, Javon Ringer.
The Bulldogs limited the Spartans to just 31 yards on the ground and followed two first-half Georgia turnovers by holding Michigan State to field-goal tries.
“Our defense was in high definition,” cornerback Asher Allen said. “We were in HD. If you didn’t have an HDTV, it didn’t look right.”
While the defense held firm early, Stafford emerged from the locker room with a vengeance.
Wide receiver Michael Moore said the team had been at a bowl function earlier in the week in which Stafford participated in a contest that required him to throw a football through a distant target. Dressed in a suit, the quarterback was a bit rusty and missed his first try.
“So he took off his jacket, rolled up his shirt, and he’s ready to start slinging it,” Moore said. “That’s the competitor he is.”
Stafford showed the same fire Thursday, completing 14-of-17 second-half passes, three for touchdowns including a 35-yarder to Moore to cap a 90-yard drive that game the Bulldogs a 10-6 lead.
“In the second half, he just calmed down, started making his reads and started putting the ball on the money,” Moore said.
Moreno finished with just 62 yards on 23 carries but added another 63 yards receiving with six catches, including the touchdown pass from Stafford in which the sophomore tailback narrowly tapped both feet inside the white line along the right side of the end zone.
While the nifty moves were patented Moreno, he handed all the credit to his quarterback.
“I didn’t do too much but catch the ball,” he said.
It’s almost always that simple in Moreno’s eyes, but the touchdown was the capper in a win that even he had to admit was important.
After a season in which the Bulldogs never seemed to put all the pieces of their talented roster together, their win over Michigan State offered a chance to talk about what they had accomplished rather than offer explanations for the goals they missed.
“We battled this year,” Stafford said. “We had some tough injuries and some tough games throughout, but just to watch those guys bounce back and get that 10th win for these seniors is awesome.”