The best game of Mike Hartline's Kentucky career saw the quarterback sharper than a Ginsu knife.
Against the No. 8 team in the country, the 6-foot-6 senior from Canton, Ohio, completed 23 of 28 passes. As he has done all year, Hartline made plays while on the move. Other than once, he stayed out of sacks.
Aided by yet another superb effort from Randall Cobb, Hartline rallied Kentucky from a 31-14 second-quarter deficit to a 34-34 tie with just 7:31 left in the game.
All the often-maligned Hartline needed to put a finishing touch on a boffo performance was to get the football back for a chance to be a late-game hero.
It wasn't to be.
Auburn ran the final 7:25 of the game off the clock and ended with a 37-34 win after Wes Byrum's 24-yard game-winning field goal as time expired.
For Hartline, it was a most unsatisfying climax after he had composed a most compelling script.
"It's hard," he said. "We ran out of time and just came up one drive short."
Of Hartline's five incompletions, two were drops and a third was a perfectly thrown down-field, sideline route to Cobb in which Auburn cornerback Demond Washington made a big-time play by reaching in and stripping the ball from the UK receiver's hands.
Often working underneath the Auburn secondary, it was Hartline's 14th pass of the game before he had one fall incomplete.
"They've got a quarterback who is really, really good," Auburn Coach Gene Chizik said.
That will be news to a segment of the Kingdom of the Blue. For whatever reason, some Kentucky fans show Hartline the same level of affection they display for Christian Laettner.
So while the QB was completing the first 13 passes he threw, a fan poster on an Internet message board belonging to The Cats' Pause called for him to be benched in favor of using Cobb exclusively at quarterback.
"Mike Hartline is playing his tail off," Kentucky Coach Joker Phillips said. "He looked like a big-time SEC quarterback."
With Auburn's behemoth (6-6, 250 pounds) of a quarterback Cameron Newton dicing the UK defense for four rushing touchdowns in the first half, Kentucky found itself behind 31-14 with 1:06 left in the first half.
Hartline got the rally Cats started by driving UK from its own 33 to the Auburn 12. Executing the two-minute drill with aplomb, the QB completed five of six passes to set up a 29-yard Craig McIntosh field goal as the first half expired.
After halftime, Hartline kept the momentum rolling. On Kentucky's second possession, Hartline rifled in a slant to Cobb on a third-and-5 from the Auburn 16. Cobb took the ball in stride and bulled his way into the end zone.
"That slant to Randall Cobb was a big-time throw," Phillips said. "That was a big-time throw in any league."
After a brilliant Cobb scramble set up Kentucky's game-tying touchdown, Auburn regained the lead on a 19-yard Byrum field goal on the second play of the fourth quarter.
Starting from the UK 30, Hartline drove the Cats back down field. On 3rd-and-6 from the Auburn 39, he hit Chris Matthews with a 12-yard pass.
After Cobb ran for 3 yards on 4th-and-1 at the 18, what was a lively Commonwealth Stadium crowd of 70,776 was electric.
Only 18 yards from the go-ahead touchdown, the UK play calling turned a bit conservative. Cobb lost 3 yards on first down, then Donald Russell gained only 1 on a run up the middle on second down.
Hartline's 3rd-and-12 pass to Cobb sailed high, the only errant throw he made all night. McIntosh nailed a 35-yard field goal to tie the game.
One stop, and the Kentucky quarterback was set up perfectly for a chance to be the hero against a top-10 foe.
Instead, Hartline never got the ball back.
"We kept telling ourselves we were going to get another opportunity, even under a minute, we were going to get another chance," Hartline said. "You have to give credit to Auburn."
UK's QB ended a clean performance with 220 passing yards and no interceptions. Yet the best game he's played at Kentucky also ended with Hartline's record as a starter in SEC games dropping to 1-9. He's 11-9 overall.
On this night, Hartline deserved a better fate.
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