Hartline knows it's time to respond

UK QB didn't play well, but he'll get his chances

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 4, 2009 

Kentucky is not going to make a change at quarterback. So there has to be change in the Kentucky quarterback.

"Mike Hartline didn't play as well as I'd like, but he's our best option and we will go forward with that," said Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks after UK's 38-20 loss to third-ranked Alabama at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday.

"He gives us our best chance," echoed Joker Phillips, UK's head coach for offense, when asked about Hartline.

But as for the quarterback himself: "I didn't think I played very well," said Hartline. "I've got to stop throwing interceptions. I've got to complete more passes. Plain and simple."

The junior from Canton, Ohio did not play well Saturday, not where it counted most. Plain and simple. He completed 17 of 31 passes for 168 yards and a score, but with three interceptions.

The team that couldn't make mistakes if it had any chance to beat the Crimson Tide made too many.

"The thing about quarterback is, you have four or five bad plays and you played terrible," Phillips said. "For the most part, he played good. But it's those four or five plays your quarterback is judged on."

Especially if you are Kentucky and you don't have the firepower, or the sheer talent, to overcome bad plays.

"Not if you're going to beat a team like (Alabama)," Phillips said.

And let's be real here. The opponents have not been Florida International and North Alabama these past two weeks. They've been No. 1 Florida and No. 3 Alabama, both with tough, nasty, fast defenses. Two of the best defenses in the entire country.

Example: Against Georgia, Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett threw for 408 yards and five touchdowns. The following week, at Alabama, Mallett completed just 12 of 35 passes for 160 yards.

Hartline's numbers were better than that, except for the three picks. On the first interception, he scrambled and tried to throw back across his body to Chris Matthews. That's a no-no. The arm strength wasn't there.

"The first interception was just bad," said Brooks. "He threw it right to them."

"Trying to get something to happen," said Hartline. "But looking back at it, probably been best if I just threw it away, or tucked it and ran. One of those two things."

The second pick Hartline threw over the middle right to Bama linebacker Rolando McClain — "He didn't see the backside backer," said Phillips — and the third came off a deflection.

"Obviously, it's a work in progress," Brooks said. "It's difficult to go out and throw the ball well against that defense."

Tough defenses remain on the schedule. But none will be quite as difficult as the two Kentucky just played.

So here's the bottom line: As the schedule downgrades just a bit — hard to say a road trip to South Carolina is soft — then Kentucky has to experience an upgrade in quarterback play.

"He's our best chance, I still say that," said Phillips of Hartline. "He gives us our best chance to win at that position."

That statement may say plenty about the position, that junior backup Will Fidler and the heralded true freshmen duo of Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski are just not ready.

"Thing we've got to do, we've got to protect Mike," said Phillips. "We've got to give him time. We've got to be able to make plays down the field for him."

They've also got to keep Hartline's head up. The fact that Kentucky goes on the road the next two weeks could be a good thing. No grumbling home fans in the stands. No scattering of boos when No. 5 takes the field for another series.

"I'm not very down," Hartline said when asked Saturday. "The only reason I'm not down is because we responded."

Now, with the two most difficult opponents history, its time for the quarterback to respond.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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