Craft rebounds from rough start as UCLA knocks off No. 18 Tennessee
PASADENA, Calif. -- No one gave UCLA a chance. Not even the stadium operators at the Rose Bowl, who shut the lights off as Rick Neuheisel tried to speak to the student body from a makeshift podium set up behind the team's bench after UCLA's 27-24 overtime win over Tennessee.
"I can do this in the dark; actually it's kind of fun to do it in the dark," Neusheisel screamed into the microphone as he led the crowd in a UCLA eight clap. "For tonight at least they can say whatever they want about the monopoly."
While UCLA and Neuheisel received considerable grief for a one page ad taken out in the local papers proclaiming that "The Football Monopoly in Los Angles is Officially Over," there is no doubt that, for one night anyway, the city belonged to the Bruins. As Neuheisel ran off the field, trying to find his wife as his sons followed him, he looked up at the darkened stands at the Rose Bowl while fireworks lit up the sky and shook his head. It would have been understandable if the lights in the Rose Bowl had been turned off at the half. Despite only being down 14-7, UCLA seemed destined to get run off the field by the 18th-ranked Volunteers.
Kevin Craft, a third-string quarterback, who enrolled at UCLA the same day spring practices began, was thrust into the starting position after injuries to Patrick Cowan and Ben Olson and played, well, like a third-string quarterback.
He threw four interceptions in the first half, two in each quarter, and each one as perplexing as the next. When his receivers would turn right, he'd throw left, when they'd race up field on a go route, he'd throw a hook. His last pass was easily picked off by Tennessee linebacker Nevin McKenzie who raced 61 yards the other way for a touchdown.
Luckily for UCLA, the only thing more dreadful than Craft's first half (7-of-18, 66 yards and four interceptions) was Tennessee's offense, which wasn't that much better. Despite Craft's interceptions, the Vols were only able to convert his last one into points as quarterback Jonathan Crompton looked just as lost as Craft at times.
If Craft's play wasn't already cause for concern, it was beginning to look as if the third-stringer would be surrounded by many of his fellow second- and third-teamers in the second half as tight end Logan Paulsen suffered a fracture right foot, receiver Marcus Everett dislocated his right big toe and running back Kalil Bell sprained his left ankle and would be out the rest of the game.
Although many at the Rose Bowl began to wonder if Chris Forcier might be any better than Craft at quarterback, Neuheisel never wavered, telling his quarterback that he was their guy. It was a sentiment that was echoed by the defense as most of the starters went up to Craft at halftime and told him that they would take care of him.
"We told him that we had his back," said freshman safety Rahim Moore, who was sprawled out on the field after the game for nearly a minute as he screamed following his first win. "I told Kevin that everything that happened already happened. Whatever you did in the first half, brush it off because we as a defense are going to put you in the offense in a good position."
The only thing more unlikely than a freshman giving his starting quarterback advice was Craft's turnaround in the second half. After Norm Chow lit into him ("You don't want to know what I said to him.") and Neuheisel admitted that he had thrown four interceptions of his own in his first start, Craft seemed like a different player. He was 18-of-25 in the second half for 193 yards, one touchdown and more importantly, no interceptions. On UCLA's last two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter he was 12-of-14 on drives of 80 yards and 60 yards, respectively.
"He was gratified by the support his teammates were giving him," Neuheisel told me afterwards. "Football for a quarterback is a rhythm thing. When the football feels good in your hands you can do anything and he stayed with it. He made a throw to Dominique Johnson in the third quarter about 140 mph from me to you and Dominique caught it anyway and I think that calmed him and he started to play."
While Neuheisel's goal of breaking USC's "football monopoly" in Los Angeles may have seemed laughable in the face of the litany of injuries his team has had to overcome, he admitted that he's used to overcoming odds and proving the skeptics wrong.
"A lot of people had to stick their necks out to give me this chance, it could have been an easier path to go in a different direction and not take the slings and arrows that go with hiring someone with blemishes," said Neuhesiel, who had been away from college football for five years after being fired by Washington. "It was a real thrill to be back on the sidelines. We got a lot of things to fix, but for an opening act, it was a lot of fun."