Ailing Hartline came through when UK needed him

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJanuary 2, 2009 

MEMPHIS — Mike Hartline has etched his name on a select list in Kentucky football history.

To become a bowl-winning University of Kentucky quarterback, the much-criticized sophomore from Ohio had to dig deep.

Had to face challenges that would try the grittiest of football players.

And all of this was in the days and hours before the AutoZone Liberty Bowl kicked off.

"Fever. Upset stomach. Throwing up. Other issues that would take you to the bathroom," Hartline said with a grin. "It's been rough."

Given a chance in Memphis to reclaim the UK starting quarterback job he'd lost after eight games thanks to Randall Cobb's knee injury, Hartline says the flu had no chance of sacking him.

"I knew no matter what, I would play," Hartline said.

With a stirring second-half comeback, Kentucky defeated East Carolina 25-19 to win the Liberty Bowl on Friday night.

For the first time in UK's often football-challenged history, the Cats have won bowl games in three consecutive seasons.

Down 16-3 at the half, UK's comeback was sparked by a 99-yard kickoff return by David Jones to open the third quarter.

The victory was secured when big Ventrell Jenkins rumbled 56 yards with a fumble recovery to give the Cats the 25-19 edge with 3:02 left in the game.

In between, an integral part of Rich Brooks' third straight bowl victory was the rock-solid play of Hartline.

The 6-foot-6, 204-pounder finished 19-for-31 for 204 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

He did it while standing in the pocket against a stout East Carolina pass rush. And despite making two trips to the UK locker room during the game because of his illness.

"Mike Hartline bounced back and had an outstanding game," Brooks said. "He was under duress. And he had some emergency situations that required the locker room. I'll leave it at that."

In the days leading up to the bowl, Brooks said that Hartline was throwing a better ball — more velocity, a tighter spiral — than he had earlier in the season.

As Friday afternoon turned into night, Hartline showed it.

The guy so often criticized for his inability to throw deep set up Kentucky's first score — a 21-yard Lones Seiber field goal — by hitting Gene McCaskill with a 48-yard bomb on an out-and-up route.

In the third quarter, Kyrus Lanxter took a short Hartline pass, made a scintillating spin move and roared 19 yards into the end zone to tie the game 16-16.

On a fourth-quarter drive, Hartline showed some arm strength when he rifled an out pattern to tight end Maurice Grinter for a 16-yard gain.

Hartline was not the second coming of Tim Couch. But he was an improved quarterback from the guy who was benched after UK's 63-5 mauling at Florida.

"He threw the ball well," East Carolina Coach Skip Holtz said. "Early in the game, a lot of his stuff was safe stuff, screens, bubbles (screens). But in the second half, he threw it down the field some. He made the throws he had to make."

Part of Hartline's improvement came on the other end of his passes. All season, Brooks and Co. waited for members of a baby-faced receiving corps to show signs they belonged at an SEC school.

In 12 regular-season games, those signs rarely showed.

Here in Memphis, they did.

In his best game at UK, sophomore Lanxter caught five balls for 46 yards. True freshmen McCaskill (three catches for 64) and Eric Adeyemi (two for 31) also made plays.

Hartline's quality effort against a stout East Carolina "D" means "he's got to be our starting quarterback going into the spring," Brooks said.

The UK coach said that the future of the multi-talented Cobb would be evaluated come spring practice as well. Every indication is that the Tennessee product is likely to be moved back to wide receiver.

"But he would still get some snaps at quarterback," Brooks said. "It would sort of be our version of the Wildcat offense."

As for what happens when much-hyped quarterback recruits Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski arrive next fall, "we'll just have to see," Brooks said. "Mike Hartline really helped himself tonight."

Whatever happens in the future, Hartline has put himself in some pretty heady Kentucky football company.

He is only the sixth quarterback in UK history to win a bowl game.

You might recognize the other five names: Blanda, Parilli. Ramsey. Ransdell. Woodson.

In between trips to the locker room, Mike Hartline put his own name on the list.

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230, (800) 950-6397, Ext. 3230, ormstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-Mail at Kentucky.com.

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