Mark Story

Both QBs stake claim to No. 1 job

Randall Cobb had injected lightning bolts into a Kentucky offense that had started 2008 deader than disco.

The first three series that the true freshman led as a UK quarterback all ended the exact same way: With the Wildcats in the end zone.

So after the Tennessee kid who said no to Phil Fulmer had taken Kentucky to a 21-3 halftime lead over Norfolk State, you really couldn't blame the Commonwealth Stadium crowd of 69,118 for expecting to see No. 18 under center when the second half began.

Instead, the UK brain trust sent starting QB Mike Hartline back on the field for the first drive of half number two.

Hartline — or at least the decision to play Hartline — was greeted with a smattering of boos.

Which did not go unnoticed on the Kentucky sideline.

"We don't need to be booing our own damn players in Commonwealth Stadium," an agitated UK Coach Rich Brooks said. "That just makes me sick to my stomach."

On a night when Kentucky polished off Norfolk State 38-3, a Big Blue star may well have been born in Cobb, a 5-foot-11, 185-pound southpaw.

Certainly a quarterback quandary for Brooks and Co. came to life.

A third-year sophomore, Hartline knows the Kentucky offense and how to run it inside and out.

A team that entered this season planning to rely on defense and its running game figured to need above all a "manage-the-game" kind of quarterback who would get his team into the right plays and not turn over the football.

Hartline has yet to commit a turnover in 2008.

Yet through two games of 2008, UK's offense has not appeared nearly proficient enough to get by with a quarterback who is not a playmaking threat himself.

Last Sunday at Louisville, in spite of favorable field position, the UK offense and Hartline amassed only 210 yards.

On its first two drives Saturday night against a foe from the Football Championship Subdivision, UK and Hartline had a three-and-out and a second drive that yielded only one first down.

Enter Cobb.

On his first play, the Alcoa, Tenn., product scooted 16 yards on a quarterback draw. One play later, he rolled around left end and didn't stop until he'd gone 18 yards into the Norfolk end zone.

The lefty got his second drive as a college QB headed toward the end zone by hooking up with former high school teammate Kyrus Lanxter for a 27-yard pass on the first play from scrimmage. It ended with Cobb sneaking in from the 1.

"When Randall is in there, we go with more of the quarterback run game," UK offensive coordinator Joker Phillips said. "He gives you another running threat teams have to account for."

On his third drive as a college QB, Cobb completed five of six passes for 40 yards, including a 14-yard TD on a fade pattern to Dicky Lyons Jr.

"For the most part, I thought Randall handled himself extremely well," Brooks said. "I thought he was very, very poised."

So why did UK go back to Hartline to start half two?

Even Cobb acknowledged that his kinetic feet and powerful left arm masked some rookie mistakes.

"I had a pass to Dicky (Lyons) where he saved me, I made the wrong call," Cobb said.

Other times, Cobb said he failed to properly read the Norfolk defense and change into the correct running play at the line of scrimmage. UK backs Alfonso Smith and Derrick Locke "just made plays with their athletic ability to bail me out," said Cobb.

After the blazing start, Cobb provided other reminders he is only months removed from high school. He lost a fumble after being blindsided by a pass rusher.

In the third quarter, Cobb locked in early on Lyons Jr. on a pass attempt, never looked the defense off and got the ball intercepted.

Meanwhile, shaking off the booing, Hartline led second-half drives that accounted for a touchdown and a field goal.

Said Phillips: "I was really impressed with how Mike responded."

Still, after three years when Andre Woodson started every game under center, Kentucky finds itself with a quarterback decision to make before Middle Tennessee arrives Saturday.

"We will not decide who will start this game until late in the week or maybe at game time," Brooks said. "They will both play no matter who starts."

Not the answer, one suspects, UK fans want to hear.

In the way he carries himself, Cobb seems to have the aura — the magic — that successful quarterbacks possess.

But before turning over the entire season to a 5-11 true freshman QB, it probably wouldn't hurt to see him play against a major college foe.