The Kentucky running game has been money all season.
UK ranks fifth in the Southeastern Conference with 186.3 rushing yards per game, which would be the Wildcats' highest average since Moe Williams led a running attack that averaged 196 yards in 1995.
But while UK's running game has been a major reason behind the team's 4-3 start, Coach Rich Brooks knows his offense can't rely solely on the run if the Cats plan to improve on last year's 7-6 record.
Junior quarterback Mike Hartline took his share of grief from Cats fans but, since he went down with a knee injury in Kentucky's 28-26 loss at South Carolina, UK has thrown exactly one touchdown pass in 10 quarters: a 25-yarder from Will Fidler that John Conner turned into a nice catch-and-run for a score.
When asked whether his team could get by on just the running game, Brooks replied, "We're finding that out as we go forward. I don't believe we can. We need to throw the ball more efficiently than we've thrown it the last couple of games."
Joker Phillips, UK's head coach for offense, explained how playing inexperienced quarterbacks changes the game.
"It's easy to take away the run game," Phillips said. "We've gotten to the point to where we have to call stuff and run it. We're not in a checking game with these young quarterbacks, and they could put enough people in the box to stop it. We've got to be able to throw it."
Offensive balance in the SEC is rare. No team in the league ranks in the top five in rushing and passing offense. The fact that UK is using three quarterbacks (Fidler, Morgan Newton and Randall Cobb) to compensate for the loss of Hartline hasn't helped.
"In mixing that up, you are not going to be quite as good at the passing game as if you were working one quarterback the majority of the reps," Brooks said. "We have to spend more time on our running game because we feel, at this point, that that is our strength."
Brooks and Phillips said several things have to happen for the UK passing game to improve:
■ Improvement from Newton and Fidler: Both quarterbacks have had their moments, but neither has shined in the passing game since Hartline went down. Newton is 8-for-19 for 56 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. Fidler is 17-for-35 for 163 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
"The transition between practice and games is the problem," Brooks said. "They're doing some good things in practice. You just have to hope it starts carrying over to games."
■ More Cobb: Brooks repeatedly has said he'd rather not use Cobb as a full-time quarterback. But Cobb was allowed to throw more out of the Wildcat formation against Louisiana-Monroe and showed the ability to be an effective downfield passer, hooking up with Chris Matthews on a 37-yard completion. Phillips said the offense might explore more of that in the coming weeks. That's one reason receivers LaRod King, Eric Adeyemi and Matt Roark, who had seen limited action, got more snaps against Louisiana-Monroe.
"With Randall playing a lot of snaps at QB, we've got to get those guys ready," Phillips said.
■ Continued pass protection: UK has kept its quarterbacks pretty clean this season, giving up only seven sacks in seven games (second in the SEC). But Newton took two direct shots that led to incompletions: a hit on an attempted flea-flicker that forced him to short-arm a pass that could have gone for a big play at Auburn, and a hit that contributed to an interception against Louisiana-Monroe. The quarterbacks also have to understand the protection schemes and where the pressure is coming from.
■ Rapid receiver development: Against Louisiana-Monroe, Matthews had his most productive outing since the season opener, and Phillips hopes the light is starting to come on for the talented junior-college transfer.
Also, sophomore Gene McCaskill has shown signs of being a reliable possession receiver on underneath routes.
"We've got to get open and make plays," Phillips said. "Chris is coming on. He's getting better and better every week. And Gene has really improved. If we can keep developing (McCaskill) underneath, it will open things up deep for Randall and Chris."
There's no official word on the status of linebacker Micah Johnson (strained knee) and cornerback Trevard Lindley (high ankle sprain) for Saturday's game against Mississippi State.
Brooks said Johnson jogged Wednesday and will try to practice Thursday. Lindley also has run some this week and will see whether he can practice Thursday, but Brooks said it's doubtful that Lindley will play.