It wasn't always perfect, but the struggling Wildcats finally won a Southeastern Conference game here Saturday by coming from behind to beat Ole Miss 30-13. And for a change, Kentucky coach Joker Phillips could even smile and joke after the game.
"Got to figure out who be the starter next ... No, I am just kidding," said Phillips after true freshman quarterback Maxwell Smith completed 19 of 36 passes for 283 yards and two touchdowns in the win.
Smith started because Morgan Newton, who had been ineffective throwing most of the season, hurt an ankle a week earlier in a loss to Mississippi State. But as good as Smith was — and he threw with both touch and accuracy — he was not a one-man show.
Suddenly an offense that had produced just three touchdowns in four previous SEC games had not only a productive quarterback, but two 100-yard receivers (Matt Roark seven catches for 116 yards and LaRod King three catches for 102 yards) and a 100-yard rusher (Coshik Williams 25 carries for 111 yards and two touchdowns).
Did Smith inspire the others or did improved play by the others help Smith?
Actually, Phillips thinks a healthy offensive line had more to do with the offensive production that produced UK's highest point total and most yards (398) of the season against a SEC foe. The offensive line was hit hard by preseason injuries and just as it began to heal to where the five starters were back playing, UK?lost running backs and receivers to injuries and then had Newton hurt.
"Now we have started making plays," Phillips said. "CoShik is seeing things. Once you can do one of the things good, it helps the other phase. If you run the ball, it helps you throw more because they have more men in the box to stop the run. Then we throw the ball and get more one-on-one (coverage) and we have to beat that. Once you start throwing and doing that, you have a chance to run the football."
It helped that Smith had five receivers with catches of 13 yards or more, something the Cats have not had all season. But Williams also averaged 4.4 yards per carry.
"We also did some special things on offense and defense. One was how we protected our quarterback. Our deal was to make sure we kept him clean (from getting hit)," Phillips said. "Defeated man coverage, which we did a good job of. We actually got behind people today. In the first half we had a chance for some big ones (completions), but they came out as foul balls. In the second half we hit a couple of home run, which you have to have when people play man coverage."
And what did the offensive stars think about the game.
He never expected to throw 36 passes in his first collegiate start.
"I didn't expect it, but I was ready to throw it that many times if I?had to," Smith said. "I was ready to do what was needed."
He had no complaints about the hits he took, either.
"My teammates take more shots than me. I probably take the least on the team. I've got to take them. I don't even get hit in practice. I deserved my hits at times," Smith said.
"To me, a big-time quarterback takes it right in the lips and stands in there and delivers," Phillips said in praising the toughness Smith displayed.
Smith was more thrilled that his father came from California to see him play.
"I am sure he was excited. He told me he was coming and I told him not to, but I was glad he got to see me," Smith said.
In his first 30 first games at UK, he had 30 catches for 275 yards. In the last two, he has 20 for 232 yards.
"I set an expectation for myself and I push myself to meet it every week. I didn't really do anything different in practice or anything. I just caught he ball," Roark, who even ran for seven yards on a reverse, said.
The former walk-on continues to sizzle and add both speed and elusiveness to an offense that had been missing that. He's playing because Josh Clemons and Raymond Sanders are both out with injuries, but one has to wonder why he didn't get a chance sooner consider the way he runs with such reckless abandon.
"I don't feel like an underdog or anything. I waited for my chance and grabbed it," he said. He missed part of practice last week with a foot injury but never thought of not playing.
"Unless I?am in a wheelchair, I am going to play. I?am not going to miss out on my chance to show what I can do," Williams, who has run for 323 yards in the last three games, said.
He had been UK's only go-to receiver before Roark emerged against Mississippi State with 13 catches and he had just four for 13 yards. But Saturday he had three catches for 102 yards, including one 55-yard grab late in the game.
King credited Smith for putting letting the offense shine.
"You expect a quarterback to be rattled, but he was actually confident," King said. "He kept his composure and he played the game. We knew that he was capable of making plays not only with his feet, but his arm as well. He is a smart kid, and he made smart decisions. He did a good job. He took control of the offense, and he was poised. Everything was good."
But not perfect.
Phillips said the offense was far from being fixed.
"Did we score every series? No. That is when your offense is fixed," the coach said. "We only scored 10 (points) in the first half. No, it's not fixed. It is far from being fixed. It is being repaired. It is in the repair mode."
But at least the repairs are working and a season that looked all but lose a few weeks ago now just might be revived by a cast of Smith, Roark and Williams — and who would have ever thought that.