LOUISVILLE — Mike Hartline didn't throw any beautiful deep balls downfield a la Brian Brohm or Andre Woodson in his first collegiate start against Louisville yesterday. His numbers, 16-for-31 for 147 yards and no touchdowns, were rather pedestrian.
But in the grand scheme of things, Hartline did exactly what he needed to do in Kentucky's 27-2 win over the Cards: He kept his composure, managed the offense and didn't turn the ball over.
That allowed the dominant UK defense to do its job, as they forced five U of L turnovers and limited the Cards to 205 yards of total offense.
"I thought Hartline did a great job of managing the offense and not making the critical errors," UK Coach Rich Brooks said. "I thought he showed real poise out there handling the game, and not taking unnecessary risks with the ball."
Hartline was one of the game's biggest question marks, as he had only six career pass attempts coming into his first-ever start. But UK offensive coordinator Joker Phillips said a talk with the quarterback just before the game gave him peace of mind.
"One thing I asked Randy was how he looked (before the game)," Phillips said of his talk with quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders. "You always want to know how your quarterback looks when you look him in the eye, and Randy said he was fine. He said he looked the same as he does in practice, and that was encouraging to hear."
"I don't think I ever felt rattled," Hartline said. "I just tried not to put too much pressure on myself and tried not to do too much. We've got other athletes who have started multiple seasons that can make plays for us."
After a 22-yard punt return by Dicky Lyons Jr. gave the Cats the ball at the Louisville 30, Hartline completed a 10-yard pass to true freshman Gene McCaskill and a 19-yarder to Lyons to set up a 21-yard Lones Seiber field goal that put UK up 3-0 with 9:53 left in the second quarter. There were also several times when Hartline threw the ball out of bounds under pressure rather than taking a sack.
Hartline completed his first five attempts as Phillips called a handful of short and easy passes to get Hartline in the flow.
"That helped me get comfortable, Hartline said. "With the type of defense they were playing, there was no reason not to take the easy throws. That was what we were looking for all week."
It wasn't a gem by any means. Hartline's longest completion was a 20-yarder to fullback John Conner, and on the few instances he did try to throw deep, the ball appeared to flutter on him.
Hartline also contributed to U of L's only points of the game, as he was whistled for intentional grounding in the end zone for a safety with 14:17 remaining that brought the Cards to within 10-2. Pinned back at his own 5-yard line, Hartline play-faked and rolled to his right into the end zone. U of L defensive lineman William Savoy penetrated the UK offensive line and charged toward Hartline, who then fired the ball out of bounds to avoid the sack.
Brooks pinned the safety on the offensive line after the game.
"He could have given up (a safety) by throwing it away or getting sacked, because he had no chance," Brooks said. "It was a blocking error, and that can't happen. It was a play-action pass, and the guy that came in and got him, we didn't block him."
With the Wildcats defense performing as it did, there was really no need for Phillips to try to get cute with the game plan. Safety Ashton Cobb returned a fumble 28 yards for a score, defensive tackle Myron Pryor returned another 72 yards for six points and Trevard Lindley had an interception that set up another TD.
"When you see the defense playing so well, you start being a little bit more conservative," Phillips said. "We've got to get to where we can take some shots downfield. You kind of get in the mind-set like last year when you think you can score quickly. But we don't have that kind of personnel right now. We've got to be a team that takes our shots, but when the defense is playing like they are, there's no need to take shots."
And while UK forced five turnovers, the Wildcats offense's only giveaway was a Tony Dixon fumble as Kentucky was trying to kill the clock.
"The best thing we did is not turn the ball over until late," Phillips said. "With the defense playing well, and the other offense sputtering, the best thing you can do is not turn it over. That was the difference in the first three quarters."
Another thing to keep in mind was that Hartline didn't have much support from the running game. The Cats had a veteran offensive line and deep stable of running backs that was supposed to take pressure off Hartline, but Kentucky had just 63 yards rushing on 33 carries.
"Considering the fact that we didn't run the ball, I think that makes his performance even more impressive," Phillips said. "Usually with a young quarterback you want to establish a running game to help him out, and we didn't have that today."
The Wildcats will have time to iron out some of the kinks in the coming weeks. They host Norfolk State and Middle Tennessee, then have an open date before hosting Western Kentucky on Sept. 27.
"That offensive film going out across the country isn't going to scare anybody, so we better shore it up a little bit," Brooks said.
As for Hartline, even though it wasn't pretty, he passed his first test.
"I'm just glad to get this one over with and get a win," he said. "Now we can work on getting better."