After Morgan Newton left the game in the first quarter Saturday night with an ankle injury, true freshman quarterback Maxwell Smith performed admirably in Newton’s stead.
Smith displayed the most impressive quarterback performance of the season for Kentucky and finally showed what he’s capable of when given a chance to to play for a prolonged period of time. Head Coach Joker Phillips hinted after their loss to Mississippi State that there could be changes coming at the quarterback position.
“We have to make some type of a decision, yes,” Phillips said. “He played good enough that we got to make a decision on that, right.”
Smith went 26 of 33 through the air for 174 yards. He took three sacks, which shows he needs to get rid of the ball quicker, but it also shows that he was willing to take a big hit if no receivers were open rather than force a pass that wasn’t there.
“(He) Played outstanding,” Phillips said. “He had 33 attempts, 26 completions. He took some big hits, picked himself off the ground, came back in, stood in there and made some other big throws.”
Half of those 26 completions went to Matt Roark. The struggling wide receiver grabbed 13 reception for 116 yards, both career-highs. Roark had had problems catching the football all seasons as coaches and teammates waited for the senior wideout to become a leader. On Saturday, Smith relied heavily on that veteran to pick up some big chunks of yards, while Roark looked comfortable doing so.
But what factored into Smith’s success? Was it Mississippi State’s lack of preparation for the freshman, planning exclusively for Newton? Was it a scaled back playbook and vanilla play-calling? Was it that Newton was just not getting it done against an average defense? It could be any of those, but it seems unlikely to be a coincidence.
Smith had finally had a chance to play for a long period of time knowing that he was “the guy.” Without having to look over his shoulder and knowing that he would have to step up in an attempt to lead this team to their fourth win of the season, Smith excelled. It was easily the longest playing time that he had seen all year.
Smith had played in four games coming into Saturday’s tilt with the Bulldogs. In those games, Smith often came in at some point in the second half when the game had gotten out of hand and Newton had struggled. That is a less than ideal situation for a freshman backup quarterback. It’s irresponsible to expect Smith to have had any success in those situations and lead a team to an insurmountable comeback against SEC teams in just a half.
Kentucky fans saw Saturday just how effective he can be when he gets to play most of the game. So is it time to give Smith a chance to run the show? Newton, while it can’t be all attributed to him, has been terrible this season. He’s regressed in his career statistically and looks like a different quarterback, and not in a good way, since the days where he was beating Auburn on the road his freshman year. Maybe Smith can be a freshman who leads the Cats to their first SEC win of the year?
It would make much more sense to start Smith next week and let Newton come off of the bench if Smith were to struggle. Ole Miss is not a good football team and it would allow Smith a chance to have some success. He’s shown that he gives Kentucky the best chance to win, even if he’s just currently the hot hand. If he were to struggle, you could put in the veteran quarterback who has came off the bench in seasons past.
For Kentucky football this season, their failures have come in their inability to adapt and change. Now is an obvious time for change, even if it’s for the sake of change. What they have been doing up until this point is not working, so it’s time to give someone else a chance to see if they can win a couple of football games before the end of the season.