On the day after the day after, the Commonwealth is still celebrating. Last week, I wrote how the matchup between Kentucky and South Carolina was a tale of two programs. Kentucky, who entered the game 3-3 with virtually no convincing wins, faced off against a one loss South Carolina team fresh off an upset of the top team in the country. While the storylines before the game were deceiving, the storyline after it is gleaming with finality: Kentucky wins.
To truly appreciate the magnitude of this game, we must start with October 9th. South Carolina hosted the ESPN Game Day crew, Buzz Baker’s “SEC Tailgate Show,” and the eyes of the nation were on Columbia, for a highly anticipated matchup with the then #1 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide. Stephen Garcia led his team to a victory over the defending national champions by two scores. By Sunday, the Cackalacka hype was at a fever pitch. While the Rooster faithful snatched up Atlanta hotel rooms by the dozens, Coach Spurrier prepared his team for what he called the biggest game in the history of South Carolina football, a trip to Lexington to play the Kentucky Wildcats.
Kentucky, on the other hand, little deserved to be a party to such a game. The Wildcats beat an improving Louisville Cardinals team in week 1, but the following two victories were over teams that remain winless. The subsequent trip to Florida resulted in a 48-14 blowout loss to the then ranked #9 Gators. On Saturday, October 9th, Kentucky gave up 31 points to Auburn in the first half. While the Cats held the Tigers to just two field goals in the remainder of the ball game, the War Eagle prevailed 37-34. That Sunday, the Kentucky fan base grew increasingly negative, and despite showing promise in the latter part of the Auburn game, many began calling for the job of Defensive Coordinator Steve Brown. Mike Hartline found the familiar ire of the fans, in spite of entering the game as the second highest grossing quarterback in the league. If emotions were at an all time high in Columbia, tensions were skyrocketing in Lexington.
Less than an hour before kick off, noticeably few fans were in the stands of Commonwealth Stadium. While the stadium was near capacity at game time, absent was the collective hope that Kentucky would win the ball game. South Carolina’s first drive was reminiscent of the entire first half of the week before, with the Gamecocks scoring easily. This possession foreshadowed the first two quarters of the contest, and the Gamecocks entered the locker room with a commanding eighteen point lead.
The Mike Hartline, Steve Brown detractors started up their all too familiar song and dance, reveling in their ‘told you so’ attitudes. Hartline, who suffered a season ending knee injury in a game against the Gamecocks the year before, completed ten of his first ten pass attempts, but the Cats only found the end zone one time. While the much-maligned quarterback was on track to have a career game, you wouldn’t know it given the audible frustration of the home crowd.
At the 10:15 mark of the 3rd quarter, things changed in Lexington. The Wildcats were pinned down at their own five-yard line, following a great punt from Carolina’s Spencer Lanning. Hartline found wide out Chris Matthews on a third and long, and eleven plays later, Hartline went to La’Rod King to cap off a ninety-five yard drive.
Kentucky held the Gamecocks to a three and out the following series, and at the beginning of the fourth quarter Hartline found Matthews again for a thirty-eight yard score. After holding South Carolina to just five plays on the ensuing possession, Hartline, Cobb and company capped off a twelve play, sixty eight yard drive with another twenty four yard score, this time to Randall Cobb.
With only a sixty five seconds remaining, the widely criticized Kentucky defense held the #10 team in the country scoreless in the second half. When Kentucky’s Anthony Mosley intercepted Stephen Garcia in the Wildcat end zone, pure jubilation ensued. When only zeros remained on the game clock, it was readily apparent on the faces of the coaches Joker Phillips and Steve Brown. The two former professional football stars lit up with happiness, Phillips jumped on one player’s back, and Brown screamed with eyes wide open. It was if the tension and pressure of the previous three games were instantly lifted at that very moment. The home crowd was rocking, and the students were pouring onto the field. Kentucky was defeated no more.
The game began as a tale of two programs, but it ended as the story of two quarterbacks. Garcia, wearing garnet and black, cemented his fate as the guy that fans and Coach Spurrier were right about. As a result of all the criticism from fans, and lack of trust from his coaches, Garcia folded under the pressure. With time winding down, and the top wide receiver in the SEC in position to make a big play, all Garcia had to do was throw a touchdown, or throw an incomplete to set up a very makeable game tying field goal. Instead, he threw a game ending interception, Kentucky’s only red zone stop of the night. Stephen Garcia left the game as a man defeated.
In the blue and white, wearing number five, stood a man vindicated. After throwing a pass, under pressure to Randall Cobb for the game winning score, Mike Hartline laid on the ground pumping his fists, soaking up the much deserved, and long awaited, hero’s fanfare. Hartline, who completed 32 for 42 passes for 349 yards and four touchdowns, proved to be much more than a guy that the fans were wrong about – He proved that he was a winner. And as for that legacy – he still has five games and a bowl win to finish writing that.