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Craft gets it done on instinct

October 19, 2008|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

It was the first chunk of an 11-play, 87-yard, elegantly engineered, stoically played, game-winning, career-elevating touchdown drive for UCLA quarterback Kevin Craft: a 15-yard pass to sophomore split end Dominique Johnson, a pass different from so many Craft had thrown Saturday, a ball with zip on it, one not tipped by a defensive lineman, one not so wobbly it might not break tissue paper.

This quarterback had almost been pulled earlier in the game, an admission Coach Rick Neuheisel had no trouble making after the Bruins beat Stanford, 23-20, at the Rose Bowl.

Norm Chow, UCLA's offensive coordinator, made Craft's case to Neuheisel, and afterward Chow said he was not surprised when Craft completed six of seven passes on that final drive.

"A study was done once, and over 70% of all passing plays are made off-rhythm," Chow said. "They're not made like you draw it up in a book. Kevin is very good at that, and he needs to trust himself that he can make some of those plays up."

The first play Craft made up was the strike to Johnson.

"It was right where it should be," Johnson said of the pass that took UCLA from its own 13 to the 28. That pass was followed by a safe throw, but one to a freshman, Nelson Rosario, who caught it for nine yards.

Sometimes it takes courage to trust a rookie, and Rosario said, "Kevin believed I could catch the ball."

The last play Craft made up was a scrambling throw to backup tight end Cory Harkey, a freshman who has had a bum ankle.

It came with 10 seconds left, it was for a seven-yard touchdown, and Chow said that if Craft hadn't trusted his instincts he might have settled for a receiver who was open on the one- or two-yard line.

"The initial read Kevin wasn't real patient with," Chow said. "The initial read would have gotten us four or five yards, and we needed seven. Kevin scrambled around and made that play. If he would always trust that instinct, he's a really good player."

Not all the big plays of the final drive were passes.

On a third-and-one at the UCLA 37, fullback Chane Moline ran through or over four Stanford defenders, and during the 17-yard gain, he said afterward, he never felt anything except that maybe he hadn't gained enough for the first down.

In the opinion of tailback Kahlil Bell, that effort might have been the game-saver.

But here's what Bell remembered: "It was second-and-three. He broke four tackles on that play. It was all effort. I don't know what more to say about it except that it was a fantastic run and it kept our drive alive. I think it sparked our comeback."

It wasn't second-and-three, but third-and-one. In the tumult of a final, emotional, essential drive, no player's camera lens was quite clear.

At first, Craft said he couldn't remember any particular play that was called or even describe one of his passes in that drive without seeing the film.

He was aware that his head coach had been angry after Craft had fumbled while being sacked. He accepted the criticism with a shoulder shrug and a cliche about needing to get better.

But then Craft did remember what happened on that final, game-winning touchdown pass, and took a little credit for himself.

"I felt some pressure," he said. "I was going to run for it. The defense came over. I just popped the ball over the top. You can't see everything on a play like that; you try to eliminate one half of the field. If it's not there, don't take the sack. If it is, go for it."

So Craft trusted his instinct at the right moment. For his efforts, his team got a victory and Craft kept his job.

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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