BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Let's start with the positive. Morgan Newton's first start of his sophomore season was an improvement over his eight starts last year.
Newton set a career high by throwing for 211 yards and did not have an interception. He had some success scrambling, even got a first down running by using a wicked stiff arm that sent a Pittsburgh defender to the ground.
Yet quarterbacks are ultimately judged by which team wins. Kentucky fell to Pittsburgh 27-10 in the BBVA Compass Bowl on Saturday at Legion Field.
A UK offense that averaged 33 points a game under senior starter Mike Hartline dented the end zone only one time with Hartline suspended and Newton running the show.
"I'm a tough critic," Newton said afterward. "Mike, obviously, led this offense all season. I tried to come in and lead it as best I could."
For the game, Newton was 21-for-36. He had a net 18 yards rushing, but that figure was diluted by three sacks.
On the down side, Newton foiled Kentucky's opening drive of the game in Pitt territory when he lost a fumble. On UK's first drive of the second quarter, Newton failed to convert a fourth-and-inches on a quarterback sneak.
Said Newton: "I felt like I made some plays. But I felt like we left a lot plays out there, too. On that fourth-and-inches, you've got to make that."
A year ago, when Newton started eight games after Hartline was injured, Kentucky largely put the ball in the hands of stars Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke and relied on its running game.
Newton as a true freshman was not very proficient at standing in the pocket and going through the progression of his reads if his primary receiver was covered.
"He was way better with that today," Kentucky offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. "Where Mike might have had five progressions (on a pass play), Morgan had three. But knowing the play call and watching the defense, I knew where I wanted the ball to go and, most of the time, that's where Morgan threw it."
On at least two of the three sacks, Newton appeared to hold the ball too long.
"Hartline is used to this kind of stuff and if they had blitzed him, he would have picked them apart," Locke said afterward. "But he wasn't there. We can't say we lost because we didn't have Hartline."
Much of Newton's success as a passer came by hitting receivers on short crossing routes. Other than one well-thrown corner pattern to La'Rod King that went for 26 yards, he didn't have much success working downfield. Newton would have had an intermediate touchdown pass had Matt Roark not dropped a 19-yard throw in the end zone in the third quarter.
"I thought Morgan, since his last outing as a full-time quarterback, made much improvement," Kentucky Coach Joker Phillips said. "But it wasn't enough to win this game. We've got to continue to get him better."
Going forward, Phillips said Newton will have to compete against current redshirt freshman Ryan Mossakowski and true freshman Maxwell Smith to be the Kentucky starting quarterback in 2011.
"We will start a competition in spring football with Moss and (Smith)," the UK coach said. "He's got to hold those guys off. And he's got to play better to hold those guys off."
Newton said he "needs to get better at everything" before next season.
Not everything. The stiff-arm he dropped on Pitt cornerback Ricky Gary on a fourth-and-1 play in the second period was a sight to behold. The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Gary went down like he'd taken a shot from Manny Pacquiao.
A 6-4, 235-pounder, Newton laughed when asked about the play and likened himself to another quarterback named Newton (they're not related) known to deliver some pretty powerful hits.
"I've seen my big cousin Cam do that a couple of times," he joked in reference to Auburn's Cameron Newton. "That felt pretty good."