October 28, 2010 12:27:00 PM
David Miller -
For all the talk of the University of Kentucky football team''s explosive offense, quarterback Mike Hartline''s name usually is the second that comes to mind.
Bouts with injuries and quarterback competitions throughout his four years at the school, Hartline had failed to lock down the position for a season before starting the 2010 campaign.
Randall Cobb, the team''s do-it-all playmaker, split time at quarterback with Hartline in ''08, and is the offense''s headliner because of his versatility and home run ability.
But Hartline''s consistency has stabilized Kentucky''s offense, which up until this season had failed to have a full-time starter since Andre Woodson''s sterling career ended.
The Wildcats are the league''s second-highest scoring team in the Southeastern Conference (34.8 points per game). The efficiency is due in large part to Hartline''s league-leading 2,144 passing yards and 17 touchdowns. He has eight touchdown passes in Kentucky''s past two games.
"Just because (Cobb) is the head of the snake, they''re still more than a one-man show," MSU defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. "They''ve improved their talent at receiver. I think the biggest change at Kentucky is their quarterback has really, really improved. I think he''s really become, and the statistics agree, one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC."
MSU cornerback Corey Broomfield branded Hartline a "NFL quarterback" because of his ability to throw the deep ball.
"We haven''t really seen that this year," Broomfield said. "If you give him a chance, he can hurt you. People won''t say it, but he reminds me of (University of Arkansas quarterback Ryan) Mallett, who we haven''t played yet, but we faced last year. They both can put it deep on the money."
MSU faced then-freshman quarterback Morgan Newton last season in Lexington, Ky. Newton, who replaced an injured Hartline, was 11 of 18 for 119 yards and was sacked three times.
Hartline''s emergence as one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC this season has pleased Kentucky football coach Joker Phillips.
"I was taking some heat for naming him the quarterback," Phillips told the Associated Press. "It''s gratifying to me. I''m happy for him, though. All the things he''s been through here, for him to keep working, keep his confidence, and the thing is the team believed in him."
Hartline hasn''t had the easiest road nailing down the starting job. He inherited the position when former teammate Jacob Pulley was kicked off the team in ''08. Cobb then replaced him, prompting a team-dividing public spat about the decision.
"It''s just one of those tough times," he said. "What mends that is a lot of hard work, a lot of time, and that you''re in this for the long run."
Hartline has benefited from the emergence of senior wideout Chris Matthews, who has 37 catches for 565 yards and two touchdowns. Matthews has 16 catches in the past two games, including a 12-catch, 177-yard performance against South Carolina on Oct. 16.
Matthews is Hartline''s primary deep threat, prompting MSU''s defense to address the vertical passing game as soon as it returned to practice.
"Coach Diaz said the first thing we want to do is touchdown-proof our defense," Broomfield said. "That (means) being in position and doing the things we''ve put in allow us to not get beat deep."
Diaz wasn''t happy with the play of the defense last week in a 29-24 victory against the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The Blazers threw for more than 200 yards and were 7 of 16 on third down. The Blazers also scored three touchdowns on four red-zone chances. Diaz was particularly disappointed with the Bulldogs'' tackling.
"We can win 48-3, and because they got three points, he''s gonna be mad, so you can only imagine how it was when they got 24," Broomfield said. "When (the Wildcats) catch the ball, tackle (them) right away. We saw what will happen when they catch the ball and we don''t tackle right away. We can''t rely on anyone to clean up what we don''t tackle. We''re the last line of defense."