One giant leap for Hartline

John Clay
John Clay

CINCINNATI — We had heard about it.

The coaches talked about it after the closed practices. His teammates talked about it after the closed scrimmages. All fall camp, the talk had been how much better Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline was than a year ago.

But seeing is believing, and we, Kentucky football followers, had not seen it with our own eyes, not until Saturday.

Then we saw it, right there as the junior from Canton, Ohio, completed 18 of 27 passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns to pace an obvious Kentucky offensive upgrade to a 42-0 whipping of Miami (Ohio) at Paul Brown Stadium.

We saw it when Hartline delivered on-target short throws, or zipped mid-range lasers, or even uncorked a long ball or two.

We saw it when the quarterback coolly connected with Randall Cobb on a perfectly placed aerial for an over-the-shoulder 27-yard grab and the game's first touchdown.

"It was a perfect ball," beamed Cobb.

Ah, but we hadn't really seen the biggest difference between the Mike Hartline of last fall and the Mike Hartline of this fall until, with 1:55 left in the first half, he hooked up with junior-college transfer Chris Matthews for a 21-yard touchdown pass to put the Cats in front 21-0.

"It was a busted route," explained head coach Rich Brooks.

Yes, it was. Matthews, the 6-foot-5 drink of water from Los Angeles Harbor College, was supposed to run a slant pattern inside. Matthews being a newcomer to this level of college football, didn't run a slant. Instead, he broke it into a deep fade.

"I didn't see the whole play," said Matthews.

Here's the thing: Hartline did see it.

"That's the difference," said Joker Phillips, UK's head coach for offense. "Last year, Mike probably wouldn't have seen the adjustment quick enough."

You remember that. The busted routes. The embarrassing throws. There would be the Kentucky receiver cutting to his left. There would be Hartline's throw sailing to the right. Confusion could commence. Grumbling would gather amongst the crowd. Boos would scatter.

That's not what happened Saturday. Instead, seeing that his receiver had done something different, something he wasn't supposed to do, Hartline adjusted. On the fly. He lofted the ball toward the end zone — a fade ball for a fade route — toward Matthews and a Miami defender.

And Matthews, being the tall receiver that this Kentucky offense did not have a year ago, went up and got it.

"There were a lot of busted plays when we had Keenan (Burton) and those guys, too," Phillips said. "They would just make a play for you."

Said Matthews, "(Mike) did a perfect job of putting it up in the air, and I did a good job of catching it."

Now, that was different.

"I've always seen that from Mike," Cobb said. "Last year, he didn't have the confidence in the guys around him. I think that's one of the biggest things he has this year."

Good reason for that. A year ago, Hartline had a young, erratic receiving corps. This year, with the addition of Matthews, the newfound maturity of some holdovers, and the fact that Cobb is focusing full-time on receiver, Hartline has weapons. He has options. He has confidence.

"We're not going back to where we were last year," said the quarterback Saturday.

He's not going back. By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, Hartline was done for the day, his passer rating of 160.2 a career-best for a game where he threw at least eight passes.

"We, and you all, used to death last year the 'manage games' thing. Now he can win games," said Brooks. "That's a significant change in Mike Hartline's game. He can put the ball where it needs to be. And we have receivers going and making those catches."

"We said Mike was better, and a lot of people didn't believe us," Phillips said. "But it was obvious today that he's a better quarterback."

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