Hartline Was Much Improved, But His Critics Await

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Thoughts scribbled on Post-It notes at Fountain Square in Cincinnati…

* His performance against Miami will NOT quiet the Mike Hartline critics. It simply will delay their appearance, which likely will come during the Florida game. Hartline showed a deft ability to adapt and improved touch on fade routes that had been missing from his repertoire until now.

The best example may have been Chris Matthews’ touchdown catch, his first as a Wildcat. The play called for Matthews to run a slant; instead, the junior college transfer ran a fade. Hartline noticed, adjusted and threw a perfect pass into the end zone over Matthews’ left shoulder. It enabled the 6-foot-5 wideout to easily out-jump the 5-10 defensive back hopelessly trying to make a play on the ball.

But even if Hartline leads the Wildcats to a second consecutive win over Louisville, the bashers will chew on their words until the Gators come to town and exert their will. At some point, the junior QB might throw an interception or fumble the ball, prompting the howls and demands for somebody – ANYBODY – else, other than the starter.

* Running by committee was fun to watch, but Kentucky still needs a primary Southeastern Conference tailback. It still figures to be Alfonso Smith, and we’ll probably find out if he can carry the mail a week from this Saturday.

Smith rushed seven times for 36 yards and had the misfortune of getting his opportunities early, before the Wildcats were able to figure out what Miami was doing. By the time that happened, the passing game was in full flourish, and then the parade of rushers had begun.

Derrick Locke ran, apparently, without pain and started to look like his old, breakaway self. Moncel Allen proved the weight loss had not sapped him of any of the power that makes him so effective in the red zone. CoShik Williams and Donald Russell made it clear the Wildcats have quality depth.

But for the past few seasons, there was little doubt (injuries notwithstanding) that when the Wildcats were going to run the ball and needed tough yards, it would end up in the hands of Rafael Little and, upon his graduation, Tony Dixon. Smith relishes the chance to play that role. We’ll find out soon if he’s up to it.

* Miami of Ohio is bad. It will get better. It will not contend for the Mid-America Conference title this season. But still, a shutout is something to be celebrated. You see very few of them in college football, even during the opening weeks of the season, when mismatches are everywhere.

Florida didn’t shut out Charleston Southern. Tennessee gave up a TD to Western Kentucky. Southern Cal surrendered a field goal to San Jose State. North Carolina gave up six to The Citadel.

In fact, the only Top 25 team to pitch a shutout was Notre Dame, which blanked Nevada in South Bend, 35-0.

Again – Miami is not a strong team. But how often do you see an over-matched opponent slip into the end zone early in a season opener, before the favored team settles down? Or late in the game, when the third- and fourth-teamers are getting their chances? The Wildcats preserved and protected the goose egg, marking a second straight season that the defense did not surrender a point in the opener (last year Louisville scored two points – a safety surrendered by the UK offense).

* Kentucky beat Miami. The college football nation shrugged – assuming it noticed at all. You could expect (and almost understand) why casual fans would see that score and not even blink as it flashed across their TV screen. Apart from UK fans, only the hard-core, magazine-buying faithful who study the game could know that the Wildcats are one of the few teams nationally who have won three consecutive bowl games. But that’s not what rankles Rich Brooks.

In an interview you’ll see this Sunday on “The Rich Brooks Show,” the UK coach addresses the fact that the accomplishments of his program have caused barely a ripple, not among casual observers of the sport, but within the people who make a living by paying attention to such things. And he also stipulates to the fact that perhaps what it will take will be a fourth consecutive bowl victory before they do notice.

* A “Sports Nightly” listener e-mailed a suggestion: Why not stage a UK football game at Paul Brown Stadium every season? Not a bad idea. It could be a Miami home game, or Ohio University – even the University of Cincinnati, although that would make for a much tougher game. But, other than the traffic, Kentucky fans enjoyed the experience of seeing a football game in an NFL stadium far better-equipped for big crowds than Commonwealth Stadium. Given the fact that Commonwealth was finished in 1973 and Paul Brown opened in 2000, it should be.

* I didn’t watch one down of the Louisville win over Indiana State (perhaps the worst team in scholarship football). A win is a win, and the Cardinals needed something good to happen to at least temporarily mollify a fan base which has been seething for the past two seasons. But from what I’ve been told, the Cards were not sharp, and evidently have much more work to do than the Wildcats prior to their showdown on Sept. 19.

* Georgia could recover from its loss at Oklahoma State and win the national championship. Why? The Bulldogs have to run the gauntlet that is the SEC Eastern division. If the Dawgs run the table and make the conference championship game in Atlanta on Dec. 5, it says here, they’ll be one victory from playing for the BCS title. Impossible? No. Unlikely? You betcha.

* Give the Bulldogs full credit for accepting the challenge of playing a tough OSU team in Stillwater in its opener. It was much more of a daunting task than LSU’s traveling to Seattle to take on Washington. True, the Tigers had to go much farther, but their opponent wasn’t nearly as tough.

The Huskies hung tough but eventually, LSU headed home with a 31-23 victory. If the Bayou Bengals make the SEC title game, you’ll hear a lot about Jordan Jefferson, LSU’s strong-armed, 6-5, 220-lb. quarterback.

* Tennessee’s 63-7 shellacking of Western Kentucky proved the Volunteers were ready to execute under new head coach Lane Kiffin. And it also underscored what a lot of us believe about the Vols – they are NOT as hapless as some might think. They might not be capable of again challenging Florida in the SEC East, but then, who is? Note – like UK vs. Miami, this one was a scoreless tie at the end of the first quarter, too.

* Worst SEC game of the opening week, by far: South Carolina’s 7-3 win over North Carolina State. It wasn’t a case of two heavyweights trading bombs. In fact, it was the opposite, a boring game featuring poor execution by both offenses.

NC State’s loss was one of five home-field setbacks suffered by the ACC, punctuating the chasm between the haves and the have-nots in that league. Among the five: Baylor 24, Wake Forest 21 (the Deacons just three years removed from playing in the Orange Bowl); Richmond 24, Duke 16; William and Mary 26, Virginia 14.

In all fairness, one of the league’s five home losses was Monday’s wildly entertaining Miami 38-43 win over Florida State in Tallahassee. No matter which team you like in that one (heck, you might not care about either), for some reason, college football seems like it’s more fun when they’re both good, and they both hate each other. As a result, the rest of us get to watch a pretty good football game.

* Go Packers. And now that he’s a Bear, I hate Jay Cutler.

Because he played heroically at Vanderbilt, I rooted for him to do well in Denver. But now that he’s leading my team’s arch-rival, he just can’t lose enough. And Green Bay gets to take him down this coming Sunday night.

(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 20-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m.ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)

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