PROVO At the same stadium where he developed, and called plays, for BYU quarterbacks like Steve Young, Robbie Bosco and Ty Detmer years ago, UCLA offensive coordinator Norm Chow returns to display his latest project junior Kevin Craft.
In Craft's debut as the Bruins' quarterback on Labor Day at the Rose Bowl, the 6-foot-5, 215-pounder threw four first-half interceptions before leading a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives in UCLA's 27-24 overtime upset of then-No. 18 Tennessee.
"I don't think you could have written a better script," Chow told the Los Angeles Times. "My wife said it was like a movie. The problem is the movie is not over yet. We don't know how it's going to end."
Another scene from Craft's story will play out on Saturday when the Bruins invade LaVell Edwards Stadium to face No. 18 BYU. Of course, the Cougar defense has studied Craft's second-half rise from the ashes in preparation for this weekend's clash.
"The thing I noticed most is his character as an individual," BYU safety Kellen Fowler said of Craft. "To come out and struggle a little bit in the first half, but to keep fighting and play a great second half, he showed great accuracy on his throws in the second half and he was very consistent. He showed that he is capable of being a big-time quarterback and really picking apart a defense. We need to prepare for the second-half Kevin Craft."
What was the difference between Craft's first-half woes and his second-half success versus the Volunteers?
"Just confidence," said BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall. "It looked like he settled in and was not rushing his throws as much. He was a little calmer and more poised, as you would expect for a new quarterback, in a new system, first game, against a national opponent. It took him a while to calm down."
Mendenhall noted that in the second half, when Craft threw for 193 yards, Chow put Craft in situations that were "more comfortable for him," which included running the bootleg to get him out of the pocket.
"The coaching staff did a nice job tailoring (the offense) to what he could have success with," Mendenhall said.
BYU linebacker David Nixon remembers watching the UCLA-Tennessee game on television.
"At halftime, I thought, 'This is going to be a tough game for (UCLA).' But I think that shows a lot about (Craft)," Nixon said. "He's a true competitor, a true fighter. He stepped in after four turnovers and came back in the second half and played almost flawless.
"We'll take that into our game, knowing they're not going to give up. He's not going to give up. He might have some down times in the game, but we've got to stay on him and make plays and finish him off."
The victory over Tennessee was enormous for UCLA for multiple reasons. The game marked the Bruin coaching debut for Chow as well as head coach Rick Neuheisel, a former UCLA quarterback who led the Bruins to a 1984 Rose Bowl victory. Neuheisel's hiring last December raised eyebrows because of his turbulent stints at Colorado (1995-98) and Washington (1999-2002). Both programs enjoyed on-field success, but they also were hit with NCAA sanctions due to recruiting violations under his watch. Washington fired Neuheisel for his involvement in an NCAA Tournament betting pool.
Knocking off a team like Tennessee helped prop up Neuheisel's brash preseason comments, vowing that UCLA will challenge crosstown rival USC for Pac-10 supremacy. Naturally, he was appreciative of Craft's second-half performance. But he also learned a lot about his quarterback that night.
"He brought us back in that game, and that will always be there," Neuheisel said. "You can talk until you're blue in the face about stuff like that, but until you've done it, you always wonder."
Out of high school, Craft signed with San Diego State, where his father, Tom, had been the head coach. As a freshman, Kevin made his first collegiate start at BYU of all places in 2006. He completed 20-of-32 passes for 216 yards and one interception against the Cougars, who routed the Aztecs, 47-17.
"It's an awesome environment, but it is really loud," Craft recalled of that game in Provo. "I think the experience will help me going there this time."
Said Nixon: "I remember him not being comfortable in the pocket. I remember him rolling out a lot. From the UCLA film, it looks like he still likes to roll out. He has a great arm on the run. That's something we'll have to game plan against.
"I think he's gained a lot more experience and he's a lot more comfortable. It looks like they have a great scheme going at UCLA. It will be a great test for us defensively to get after him and make some plays."
Following his freshman year, Kevin Craft transferred to Mt. San Antonio College, where he put up huge numbers a year ago. During the recruiting process, he picked UCLA over Southern Methodist and Hawaii, saying at the time he wanted to play for Neuheisel and Chow. Then, the two quarterbacks ahead of Craft on the depth chart, seniors Pat Cowan and Ben Olson (who redshirted at BYU in 2002), suffered injuries, opening the door for him to emerge as the Bruins' starter this season.
As for Craft's first start? So far, so good.
"I've seen some real growth in his maturity," Chow said. "He's more confident in the huddle and is understanding the offense better. It's still going to take some time. It's not like he's a polished guy just yet."
E-mail: [email protected]