For one half, Jalen Whitlow was the king of Kentucky.
The true freshman quarterback was pressed into action against No. 6 South Carolina on UK's third play from scrimmage Saturday night when Wildcats starting QB Maxwell Smith was forced from the game by a left ankle injury (X-rays were negative).
Out of the gate, the 6-foot-2, 202-pound product of Prattville, Ala., dazzled.
Whitlow made electric plays with his feet. He threw darts for big plays. Facing the same South Carolina defense that held Kentucky to 97 yards of total offense in the entire game last season, Whitlow directed UK on a 94-yard drive Saturday that yielded a field goal in the first quarter.
In the second period, No. 13 was even better, directing not one but two touchdown drives, capping the first one with an 8-yard scoring run himself.
At the conclusion of one of the most improbable halves of football ever played in Commonwealth Stadium, Kentucky and its rookie QB led the Gamecocks 17-7.
One could almost feel the heat coming off Steve Spurrier's forehead as Carolina exited C.M. Newton Field at intermission.
Alas, for Kentucky and its freshman QB, reality returned in half two.
South Carolina obliterated Kentucky 31-0 after halftime and recorded a 38-17 victory over UK before a sparse crowd announced at 49,810.
At halftime, Whitlow stood 8-for-13 passing for 71 yards with no interceptions. He ran for 29 positive yards (though had a net 13 after taking minus-16 on two sacks).
"He looked like he had been there," Kentucky Coach Joker Phillips said of Whitlow. "He didn't have the bright eyes you see in some guys. ... This guy went out there and played."
He went out there and made plays.
On third-and-8 from the UK 3-yard line, Whitlow got the 94-yard field goal drive ignited with a scramble around right end for 13 yards. Later in the same drive, he hit Demarco Robinson for 20 yards and a Kentucky first down at the Carolina 37.
"On that long drive, I kind of got into a rhythm," Whitlow said. "I felt good out there."
On what became Kentucky's first touchdown drive, the Alabama product threw an absolute dart to fellow freshman A.J. Legree that went for 20 yards. "That ball stuck in there," Legree said. "It was a laser."
Later, Whitlow scampered around right end for 8 yards and a touchdown. It was the first rushing TD South Carolina has allowed this season.
"We ran some plays out there I've never seen before," Kentucky offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. "And, the amazing thing was, Jalen was able to make plays out of some of them."
The freshman QB and the UK offense kept rolling in quarter two, as Whitlow set up a Raymond Sanders 10-yard TD run just 1:52 before halftime by hitting Daryl Collins with a pair of mid-range passes (11 and 15 yards).
"I thought Jalen competed, he did battle," Randy Sanders said. "I kept telling him over and over and over, your main job is to run the team and take care of the football, run the team and take care of the football. I thought for most of the game, he did a decent job of that."
Alas, after driving Kentucky to the score that made it 17-7 Cats, Whitlow began to look like a true freshman getting his first extended playing time against the nation's No. 6 team.
After a senseless Spurrier gamble on fourth-and-1 from his team's own 34 with 1:08 left in the first half resulted in an errant shotgun snap, Kentucky recovered and had the ball 1st-and-goal at the Carolina 10 with 56 seconds left in the half.
A Raymond Sanders run gained nothing, then on second down Whitlow seemed to have trouble getting Kentucky lined up properly. As a result, UK was forced to take its final timeout of the half with 24 seconds left.
That bit the Cats when Whitlow was forced to scramble on third-and-goal from the 10 and lost a fumble. As the game clock ticked toward zero, Kentucky's Demarco Robinson recovered and ran the ball to the 2. He appeared to be tackled with two seconds left.
UK could have really used that just-called timeout.
"I didn't see the defender coming in behind me and he knocked the ball loose," Whitlow said.
In half two, South Carolina (5-0) played like a team that had gotten a wake-up call. The Gamecocks' fierce pass rush sacked Whitlow four times in half two and forced the freshman into two interceptions. The UK frosh completed only four of 10 for 43 yards after halftime.
But, at least for a half, Jalen Whitlow put the thrill back into Kentucky football.
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com