QB competition a good thing after Newton's performance

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 28, 2009 

NASHVILLE — Joker Phillips said in the run-up to the Music City Bowl that Kentucky would have an open quarterback competition in the spring regardless of what happened in the game.

UK's 21-13 loss to Clemson showed the wisdom of that stance.

If it is going to sustain its football success, Kentucky has got to get a more effective passing attack going.

With Clemson stacking the line to shut down running back Derrick Locke and Wildcat formation runner Randall Cobb, UK had no answer to loosen the 'D.'

True freshman Morgan Newton went the whole way at quarterback and threw for 98 yards. Of Newton's 13 completions against the Tigers, only two went for more than 10 yards.

"I thought he did some really good things," Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks said of Newton. "But especially when he threw the ball down the field, the accuracy was not there."

That has not been unusual in the eight games Newton, the highly-touted recruit from Carmel, Ind., started since Mike Hartline got hurt in the first half at South Carolina.

In five of those starts, Newton threw for fewer than 100 yards.

It is a minor miracle that UK was able to win five of those eight games.

"It's not like it's not in my repertoire," Newton said of the long ball. "The coaches' confidence in me to make those throws has got to come. Coach has done a lot to baby me this year and make sure I didn't mess things up in a lot of situations. I wish they'd have let me let it loose a little more."

At Kentucky, you have to be able to pass to win.

In UK's two Music City Bowl victories this decade, Andre Woodson threw for a combined 657 yards and seven touchdowns.

The 2009 Wildcats have relied heavily on the run blocking of a veteran offensive line and the play-making ability of Locke and Cobb.

Given a month to prepare, Clemson largely took away that dynamic duo.

UK had no answer through the air.

Newton was razor sharp on Kentucky's opening drive. He went 3-for-3 through the air and drove Kentucky 61 yards for what proved to be the Cats' lone touchdown of the game. It came on a pretty 17-yard pass to Chris Matthews in the corner of the end zone.

UK was bidding to expand its lead on its second series, driving to the Clemson 29. But Newton lost three yards on a called run, then took a blindside sack from blitzing Clemson linebacker Kavell Conner for a 7-yard loss that knocked the Cats out of field-goal range.

"That was a critical series," Brooks said.

In the second half, Kentucky had the ball in Clemson territory three times but managed only three points. Newton threw for only 36 yards in half two.

"We had many opportunities to score and didn't capitalize and make the plays," Brooks said. "We didn't score."

The Kentucky coach said he considered inserting Hartline in relief of Newton. "We talked about it at halftime," Brooks said. "We thought about it, if we got the ball back (at the end of the game). But they ran the clock out on us."

Moving forward, Newton, Hartline and redshirt freshman Ryan Mossakowski figure to battle it out to be Kentucky's starting quarterback in 2010.

Who will be making the ultimate call on the starting signal caller is also up in the air.

Brooks said after last night's game that he had told his team it was "80 percent" that he will retire as Kentucky's coach. He said he will talk it over with family members and reach a decision within "four or five days."

If Brooks steps down, Phillips will ascend to the head coaching position and make the quarterback decision.

Does whoever makes the decision put a premium on Hartline's experience?

Will Newton's late-season playing time allow him to make a significant step forward by the spring?

Can Mossakowski — who spent this year recovering from major shoulder surgery — recover the arm strength that made him a highly coveted Texas high school prospect?

For Kentucky football, it's going to be an interesting spring.

One thing we know: No matter who is UK head coach or who is Kentucky's starting quarterback, the Cats have got to get a passing game going to keep the bowl games coming.

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com.

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