LOUISVILLE — It had been 11 long months since Mike Hartline had put on his Kentucky jersey and marched onto the field as the starting quarterback.
It had been 11 months since a knee injury at South Carolina all but ended his season, with his only other action a token appearance at Vanderbilt in November.
The senior quarterback admitted he had to swat at his share of butterflies before Saturday's game against Louisville at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
"I was real, real nervous," he confessed.
But Hartline had missed the butterflies. He had missed everything about being out there.
"I was ready for the noise, ready for the heat," he said. "There's no better feeling."
Well, maybe there's a better feeling, like guiding your team to its fourth straight win over its rival and becoming the only quarterback in Kentucky history to win three in a row over Louisville.
Hartline threw for 217 yards and completed 17 of 26 attempts in the 23-16 victory.
He didn't throw for a touchdown, but he did what his coaches wanted.
They knew the heat was on Hartline. They heard the criticisms when he was named the starting quarterback. They knew he had heard it, too.
"It's real easy when you've had the criticism that he's had to go out there and try to prove people wrong, but Mike stayed within what we asked him to do and I thought he played a tremendous game," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said.
He did more than just manage the game, head coach Joker Phillips said.
"He made some plays to win the game," Phillips said. "He scrambled and made some throws."
Several times, Hartline was able to successfully navigate outside the pocket, like on a 25-yard pass completion to Matt Roark while under duress in the first quarter.
Two plays later, Derrick Locke was in the end zone for his second score of the game.
"We've got to be able to make plays off scrambles," Sanders said. Hartline "was able to keep some drives alive and keep our offense on the field."
The receivers appreciated his effort.
"He was the leader we needed him to be," said La'Rod King, who caught three passes for 58 yards.
Randall Cobb said the offense has complete confidence in its quarterback.
"I knew he was going to play like that," said Cobb, who caught two passes for 19 yards. "It's something he's been doing all fall camp and all summer. We were all behind him and ready for him to show everyone else he could do it."
All Hartline had to do was shake off the butterflies.
As soon as he opened the game with a 38-yard pass to King, Hartline felt good.
"It was a blind throw," Hartline said. "I really didn't see much, got hit right afterward."
But Hartline barely felt that hit.
After all that time away, it was just good to be back.