Don't look now, but Mike Hartline is developing into a nice college quarterback.
Junior all-purpose threat Randall Cobb was the big story — throwing a touchdown pass, catching a touchdown pass and scoring on a TD on a 50-yard punt return — in Kentucky's 63-28 win over Western Kentucky in the home opener Saturday night.
But Hartline's second consecutive sharp outing should not be overlooked. The senior QB went 16-for-20 passing for 213 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He also had his first career rushing touchdown and even threw a lead block on a Cobb reverse in the third quarter. About the only thing Hartline didn't appear to do very well was add.
"I thought Mike Hartline was outstanding," UK Coach Joker Phillips said. "You guys had him with four incompletions; he said he only had two. I don't know. We'll go back, watch the film and give you an update tomorrow."
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Through two games, Hartline is 33-for-46 passing for 430 yards with no turnovers and looks as smooth and comfortable as he ever has in a Wildcat uniform. His 218.96 pass efficiency rating for the game was UK's best since Jared Lorenzen's 226.63 rating against Vanderbilt 2001.
"It's not just me having more confidence in myself, it's everyone around me having confidence, too," Hartline said. "It's the players, the coaches. ... It makes it easy to play. I'm just happy to be a part of this group of people.
"(The ball) feels good coming out of my hands. We have great plays to run and we have guys out there making catches, so I feel good about what we're doing."
Hartline's crunching block on UK's first possession helped spring Cobb for a seven-yard gain.
"Yeah, we want him to throw the block," Phillips said. "He's on scholarship, too. Unless he doesn't expect those other guys to block for him, yeah, we expect him to throw a block. You should see him block on the 'Wildcat' package. Mike is down there hustling, trying to get after people."
A week after committing 11 penalties for 90 yards, the Cats had just two for six yards against the Toppers.
"We made some improvements," Phillips said. "The thing I like is that we played cleaner."
While there was plenty to like about the Cats' win, there were also some warts. Junior tailback Bobby Rainey carried 22 times for 184 yards and two scores for Western Kentucky, and he stunned the Commonwealth Stadium crowd of 66,584 by bolting 59 yards for a touchdown on the game's third play. UK's special teams were shaky for the second week in a row — Ryan Tydlacka missed a 35-yard field goal and Western's Willie McNeal took a kickoff 90 yards to the house.
Kentucky started to turn up the heat after Rainey's big run.
UK's first drive went 11 plays and 66 yards, capped by a 2-yard fade pass from Hartline to Chris Matthews to tie the game at 7 at the 8:02 mark of the first quarter.
Then the UK defense got involved. Junior walk-on defensive tackle Luke McDermott stepped in front of a Kawaun Jakes dump pass, tipped it in the air, and came down with the interception at the Western Kentucky 9-yard line. That set up Hartline's 10-yard scramble around left end to put the Wildcats up 14-7 late in the first quarter. After the defense stuffed WKU for a third consecutive drive, Cobb put the Cats ahead 21-7 with a 50-yard punt return.
Cobb also showed his mettle as a receiver, hauling in a 40-yard pass from Hartline to set up Locke's 1-yard TD at 9:23 of the second quarter. Cobb added a 15-yard scoring pass to fullback Moncell Allen for good measure to make it 35-7 at 1:34 of the second. After McNeal's return TD, Hartline connected with La'Rod King for his second TD strike, a 4-yarder 11 seconds before halftime.
"I thought we started fast," Phillips said. "We wanted to come out and play fast, play smart, play physical and play inspired football in the first half, and I thought we did that."
The Wildcats started the second half in a lethargic state, much like they did in the Louisville game. Their opening drive ended with Tydlacka's miss, and then Rainey chewed through the defense during a nine-play, 80-yard drive. His 1-yard TD run pulled WKU within 42-21 with 5:31 in the third.
"Rainey's a hell of a player," UK defensive coordinator Steve Brown said. "He could play in the SEC. He's a good back."
But Brown and Phillips said the defense also helped Rainey out a little bit.
"When you hit a guy and he keeps running and moving the pile, there's something wrong," Brown said.
"We've got to tackle better," Phillips said. "We've got to get guys on the ground. The guy is a really good back, but no back rushes for 180-something yards against us. For us to be the type of team we want to be, to have the type of season we want to have, you can't allow anybody to run for that many yards on you."
Hartline threw his third touchdown pass and helped Cobb complete his hat trick with a 35-yard connection with 3:02 in the third. But to Western's credit, the Hilltoppers kept attacking. Jakes' 34-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Vasquez capped another nine-play, 80-yard drive that cut UK's lead to 49-28 with 8:32 remaining.
Kentucky freshman Raymond Sanders had two fourth-quarter TD runs to close out the scoring.
Western Kentucky Coach Willie Taggart liked his team's offensive showing but said the Toppers made too many key mistakes to stay in the game.
"I just think we hurt ourselves," he said. "Penalties get us off schedule, and then turnovers where they get the ball in great field position. That's why the score is like it is."
Another stat that might have gotten lost in the Cobb/Hartline hysteria: Joker Phillips is the first UK football coach since Bear Bryant to start his career 2-0. Hartline said the 2-0 record is more important than any individual numbers.
"This feels great," Hartline said. "Having good stats is one thing, but to win is what we're trying to do."