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November 5, 2011Don't tell Maxwell Smith he made it look easy. Don't tell him he was always composed, and don't tell him this wasn't a big win.
With the hopes for a sixth-consecutive bowl game fading fast, the true freshman quarterback led the Kentucky (4-5, 1-4 Southeastern Conference) offense to 20 points in the fourth quarter to beat Ole Miss (2-7, 0-6 SEC) for the Wildcats' first conference win of the season. After trailing 13-10 in the third quarter, the defense shut the Rebels out the rest of the way for a 30-13 win.
"I definitely was nervous before the game," Smith said. "When you're waiting and waiting, a little bit of nerves came through."
But when he hit the field, all that went away. In his first career start, Smith threw for 283 yards and a pair of touchdowns, more than Morgan Newton's career high. He was inconsistent early and struggled with the play clock at times, but sparked the offense when he was needed and kept the Ole Miss defense off balance.
"(Smith) definitely deserves to be the starter next week," Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips said. "We aren't making a quarterback controversy or anything like that. He deserves to be the starter next week."
The win doesn't salvage Kentucky's season, but it brings back a glimmer of hope to a year that had been spiraling out of control since the Wildcats' lost their four-game win streak against archrival Louisville. They followed that with losses to Florida, LSU and South Carolina in which the team had the worst margin of defeat in a three-game stretch in program history.
A home loss to Mississippi State last week, previously winless in SEC play, took them even further away from their goal. But with three games remaining and two more wins needed to become bowl eligible, the win gives them a chance to make a late-season run.
"Our guys were rallying around each other," Phillips said. "We have been talking about locking arms and going to work together and working for each other."
Smith wasn't the only Wildcat to shine in the win. Junior tailback CoShik Williams broke through for 112 rushing yards, and wide receivers La'Rod King and Matt Roark each had over 100 yards receiving.
"We have a lot of weapons, it just took a lot of time to find who was willing to put themselves in that position and sacrifice for the team," King said. "It took some people going through injuries for guys to step up. Young guys stepped up, old guys had to realize that this was serious and step into a leadership role.
"It took a while to figure it out but I think we finally got it."
Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders called it the offense's most complete game of the season. Smith, Williams and Roark weren't the guys expected to lead the offense when the season began, but they've come up big in the last two weeks.
Smith struggled to hit on long passes last week and couldn't complete the deep ball early against Ole Miss, but he and his receivers finally clicked in the fourth quarter. He hit King on a 38-yard touchdown early in the final period and a 55-yarder later to set up another touchdown.
"I don't know if it was my adrenaline, but I told (my receivers) at halftime 'I'm going to hit you guys, just trust me,'" Smith said.
The Rebels couldn't stay out of their own way. They had 11 penalties for 93 yards, nearly half of which came in the fourth quarter as they furiously tried to rally. They only had one turnover on the night, but the Wildcats didn't have any turnovers.
Smith finished 19-36 and took only one sack. He saved his best moments as the clock wound down. After Ole Miss took its 13-10 lead late in the third quarter, Smith completed 8-13 passes for 154 yards and both his touchdowns.
With three quarters of the season gone, those late-game heroics will have to become late-season heroics to finish the road back to another bowl game.
"We won field position, we won the fourth quarter and we got the ball in the end zone from the red zone," Phillips said. "Those things equal wins. As long as we stick with our plan, we feel like we have a chance to win games."
-Saturday's attendance was announced as 56,882, the ninth-lowest attendance at Commonwealth Stadium since it expanded in 1999. Four of the 13 lowest attended games at Commonwealth Stadium since it expanded have been in 2011. That includes games against Central Michigan, Jacksonville State and Mississippi State.
But Phillips was pleased with those who did come to the game, thanking them without being prompted in his postgame press conference.
"I would like to thank the fans," he said. "I really liked the energy those guys had. You do not know how important it is for kids to see them out here. That was big and it was big in the fourth quarter."
-La'Rod King finished with three catches for 102 yards and a touchdown and Matt Roark had seven catches for 116 yards. The last time Kentucky had two players with 100 or more receiving yards in a game was against Ole Miss last year, when Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb did it.
But the last time two Wildcat wide receivers had more than 100 receiving yards each was on Oct. 20, 2007, when Dicky Lyons had eight catches for 124 yards and three touchdowns and Stevie Johnson had eight catches for 128 yards.
-Roark had 116 receiving yards for the second consecutive game. He has 20 catches for 232 yards in his last two games, while he had 30 catches for 275 yards combined in the 32 games in his career prior to that. He's the first Kentucky player to have back-to-back games of more than 100 receiving yards since Randall Cobb did it last year.
-Danny Trevathan's 17 tackles moved him into a tie for 14th place on the all-time tackle list at UK with Larry Smith. The 17 tackles tied his career high, and he also had 17 last week. He still leads the conference in tackles.
-Ole Miss entered the game on an 11-game losing streak in the SEC. Their last win was against Kentucky on Oct. 2, 2010. Some internet reports said Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt would be fired following the loss, either early this week or at the conclusion of the season. There was no confirmation from the Ole Miss athletic department as of Sunday afternoon that Nutt's future with the school had been decided.
-Kentucky did not have a turnover for the second consecutive game, and has won the turnover battle in the last three games. The Wildcats are 7-1 under Joker Phillips when they win the turnover battle, with the only loss being last week's defeat to Mississippi State.
"When our offense does not turn the ball over, our chances of winning are much better," defensive coordinator Rick Minter said. "When we force takeaways, that sets the offense up with a short field and alters the outcome of the game."
Junior wide receiver E.J. Fields suffered a hip pointer on the first play of the game and did not return. Sophomore defensive tackle Donte Rumph, who hyperextended his knee last week, injured his ankle and did not play in the second half. Junior linebacker Ridge Wilson injured his shoulder and did not return, but freshman Alvin Dupree had a sack and a tackle for loss in his place.
Newton's status for next week, but a UK athletics spokesman said after the game he would be considered "questionable to doubtful" as of now.
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