A few weeks ago, after Maxwell Smith threw back-to-back interceptions as Kentucky was being routed at South Carolina, head coach Joker Phillips joked that the second-string quarterback is always the most popular player on the team.
"I told Max, you're not as popular now," cracked Phillips.
Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium, the backup quarterback suddenly got popular again.
Let's not get carried away here. Kentucky lost to Mississippi State 28-16, dropping the Cats to 3-5 overall and 0-4 in the SEC. The Cats were outgained 398-307. They trailed 14-3 after the first quarter, 21-6 at halftime and 28-9 after three quarters. They forced three turnovers, did not turn the ball over themselves, and yet were never really in the game.
And there now has to be the feeling that the season is all but done. To reach a sixth consecutive bowl game, Phillips' club would have to win three of its last four games. That seems highly unlikely. A remaining lineup of Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Georgia and Tennessee is not a murderer's row, but this is a Kentucky team that has not just lost all four of its SEC games, but lost them by a combined margin of 129 points.
Yet in the midst of the continuing darkness, a small ray of light shone through in the figure of a 6-foot-4, 220-pound true freshman quarterback from Grenada Hills, Calif.
After season-long starter Morgan Newton left with a sprained ankle, Smith completed 26 of 33 passes for 174 yards. He didn't throw a touchdown pass, but he wasn't intercepted either. And he guided the Cats on their lone TD drive of the night which ended in a 4-yard run by Jonathan George with 5:35 remaining.
After that, Smith drove the Cats right back down the field again, moving inside the State 10-yard line, before an incompletion in the end zone killed the drive and sealed the deal for Mississippi State.
"I thought I played pretty well," said Smith afterward. "But I'd trade any day for a win, as you guys probably know."
"I thought he was outstanding," said Phillips of his freshman.
Was Smith outstanding enough that the coaching staff will have to rethink the quarterback position?
"Yes," said the coach. "We'll have a decision to make."
There was certainly a difference in Matt Roark, the senior wide-out who after struggling most of the year caught 13 passes for 116 yards. Was part of Roark's success because he was seeing a more catchable ball from the quarterback?
"I wouldn't say that," Phillips said.
I would. Smith threw a more consistent ball. For the most part, his throws were on time, on target. The staff gave him short throws early to give him confidence, then opened it up a bit more for the backup as the game progressed.
"I hesitate to say this, but I'll say it anyway," said offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, "but Max has as much arm talent as any quarterback I've ever worked with."
Smith's main problem is his inexperience. He changed a play to a run that didn't work and earned an earful from Sanders on the sideline. On the final drive, fourth down at the 7, Smith didn't see a blitz off the edge. He had to throw early, and the incompletion sailed high.
"He struggled a little early with those things," Phillips said of the miscues. "But again, he picked himself up and went back the next play and made the big plays for us. He's got to get better than that."
"If I could get him to practice with the same intensity he showed out there tonight," Sanders said, "then I think we would be making progress."
Phillips said usually a backup quarterback does get better at that once they've taken some hits on the field. And backup quarterbacks usually start paying more attention when they think they have a legitimate shot at the starting spot.
After Saturday, the backup quarterback has just that.
Said Phillips, "We'll have to make some type of decision."
Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.