Mark Story: Max Smith gives Cats reason to dream again

Freshman QB emerges as glint of hope for restive cats fans

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 6, 2011 

Late on the night before Max Smith started his first college game as a quarterback, he did what you'd expect of a college freshman in 2011.

He was on Twitter.

"Let's see if I can fall asleep," @Maxwe11uk tweeted Friday.

Only hours later, Kentucky's 6-foot-4, 220-pound QB found himself in the fourth quarter of an SEC football game with his team trailing by three.

Kentucky trailed Mississippi — the same Ole Miss that came to Commonwealth Stadium having lost 11 straight Southeastern Conference games — 13-10. A UK season that has largely been without celebration teetered on the verge of all-out disaster.

Then the freshman quarterback came through like a seasoned vet.

On a second-and-10 from the Rebels 38, Smith hit wide receiver La'Rod King with an elegantly thrown bomb. King ran under it and into the end zone.

Just like that, Kentucky had the lead and the momentum.

Soon, Max Smith had more than that: A victory in his first game as a college starting quarterback.

Kentucky beat Mississippi 30-13 Saturday before an announced crowd of 56,882. There were many heroes for UK (4-5, 1-4 SEC), but none more than the California kid who started at QB.

Smith finished 19-for-36 for 283 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.

"To me, a big-time quarterback takes (hits) right in the lip and stands in there and delivers," Kentucky Coach Joker Phillips said. "(Max) did that numerous times. He did an unbelievable job."

A week ago, Smith replaced an injured Morgan Newton and completed 26 of 33 passes for 174 yards against Mississippi State. With Newton unable to practice this week, Smith found out Thursday he would be the starter against Ole Miss.

"When you just get thrown into a game, there's less time to be nervous," Smith said. "When you know (you're going to play), and you are waiting and waiting and waiting, it's a little tougher."

Once it became official that the Granada Hills, Calif., product would start, his dad, Carl, told him via the phone that he would be flying in for the game.

"I was like 'Don't come, Dad. You don't have to come. Don't worry about it,'" Smith said.

The elder Smith insisted, however, so on Friday morning the Smiths, father and son, had breakfast and hit the mall together.

"I actually think that helped me relax," Max Smith said. "So I wound up glad he came."

Early on Saturday, Smith did not appear especially nervous, but he did look like a freshman at times. Kentucky used all three of its timeouts in the first half because of alignment issues or trying to keep the play-clock from expiring.

Smith led Kentucky to a 10-6 halftime lead and threw the ball effectively — except he kept overthrowing open UK receivers on deep routes.

"If we'd really been on our game, we probably would have had 35 points in the first half," Kentucky offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. "I told Max, 'You can't miss those plays and turn into the kind of quarterback you want to be.'"

By the time the fourth quarter began, it had started to look like those missed early chances would bite the Cats. Mississippi (2-6, 0-6 SEC) led 13-10 when Smith dropped back and threw the pass that King caught for the touchdown.

He was just getting started.

With the Cats clinging to a 16-13 advantage and trying to take time off the clock inside the final five minutes, Kentucky play-calling got aggressive. Smith again hit King with a perfectly thrown 55-yard bomb that took the ball to the Ole Miss 6. Two plays later, Smith rolled left and found Gene McCaskill for a game-clinching, 8-yard TD pass.

Soon, the Cats had an SEC victory. It also appears they have a quarterback.

"He can be that guy, You're talking, maybe, the next Andre Woodson," King said in reference to the ex-UK QB star.

To keeps things in perspective, Ole Miss is not a good defense. The Rebels came into Saturday ranked 11th or 12th in every major SEC team defensive category.

Still, one reason this UK football season has been so sour, even besides too much losing, is that there hasn't been any player in which a restive fan base could invest hopes for a better day ahead.

In the last two weeks, Max Smith has become that.

During his post-game news conference, Phillips deadpanned that before the Cats face Vanderbilt next week "we've got to figure out who is going to be the starter" at QB.

He was kidding.

"Max definitely deserves to be the starter next week," the UK coach said.

After his late-Friday tweet, Smith said he did, in fact, sleep.

"Got eight, nine hours," he said with a smile. "That was crucial."

In this case, it was after Max Smith slept that the dream began.

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