Opening day confirmed one thing.
This Kentucky football season isn't so much about the defense or the offense or the kicking game or the schedule or the ticket prices or Derrick Locke or Randall Cobb or DeQuin Evans or the collection of commitments for 2011.
This season is about the doubted duo.
Joker Phillips and Mike Hartline.
Phillips is the head coach. He's the one without a honeymoon, thanks to the braying contingent of Kentucky fans who can't forget or forgive the offensive coordinator's reluctance to use Randall Cobb down on the goal line last year, or the unit's performance over the last two years.
Hartline is his quarterback. He's the senior who in the view of the armchair analysts hasn't lived up to the line of Couch, Bonner, Lorenzen and Woodson. He's the one who is just good enough to get you beat.
In the first half of Saturday's 23-16 win over Louisville, the doubting duo could not have been much better. Phillips played go-for-the-throat. He took the ball after winning the opening toss. He threw a long pass on the game's first play. When the defense first took the field, starters DeQuin Evans and Winston Guy were on the sideline. Discipline ruled. Miss a meeting, miss a start. Set a tone.
Halftime: Kentucky 20, Louisville 6.
If the first half was something for the dreamers, the second half was something for the doubters.
Louisville outplayed the Cats. After going 10-for-12 through the air the first two quarters, Hartline was a mere 7-for-14 the final two. His teammates committed ill-timed penalties. Special teams suffered. The defense allowed an 80-yard touchdown run and a few converted third-and-longs.
The blowout turned into a battle. You know fans. They always want a blowout. Instead of basking in a fourth consecutive win over the Cardinals, or talking up the strong start, some harped on the inability to close. That's what doubters do. They clamp onto the first opportunity to doubt. And they rarely let go.
My advice: Let it go.
Saturday's faults are of the fixable variety. Getting lined up correctly. Covering kicks. Blowing chip-shot field goals. Those are first-game things, the product of opening-day nerves. Even old pro Randy Sanders, UK's offensive coordinator, admitted that his stomach was churning when he made the climb to the coach's box on Saturday.
"If I'm not nervous," said Sanders, "then I know it's time to get out of this business."
Plus, the Cats have a couple of weeks to work out the kinks. Next weeks' foe, Western Kentucky, lost its 21st straight football game on Saturday. UK's Sept. 18 visitor, Akron, was thumped 29-3 by Syracuse on Saturday. Even Florida, which plays host to the Cats on the 25th, got off to a wobbly start before outlasting Miami of Ohio 37-12.
Back to one more look in the rearview. To these eyes, the doubted duo did just fine. I liked the way Phillips ran Saturday's game, the aggressive thinking, the game management. Better still was Hartline's performance. He appeared more mobile. He made good decisions. Only once did he miss on a makeable throw, failing to hit Randall Cobb in the end zone.
"Mike, he's player of the game hands down," said Cobb afterward. "We've been talking about it all summer and all fall camp. And when he finally got to come out and display it for all the fans, he showed he was the man for the job."
They both are, this doubted duo of Phillips and Hartline.