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Lost in thought

UCLA's Craft thrives when time is short, but consistency is an issue

October 24, 2008|Chris Foster | Foster is a Times staff writer.

The dual personalities that control UCLA quarterback Kevin Craft on the football field were on display at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.

Craft was facing a second-and-14 play early in the third quarter . . .

Mr. Hyde dropped to pass and watched wide receiver Terrence Austin the whole way as he ran an out pattern. And his throw was perfect -- had it been at the finish of a basketball fastbreak.

The ball hit several yards short, then skipped right to Austin.

Craft had the Bruins first and goal at the seven, near the end of a length-of-the-field drive with 10 seconds left in the game . . .

Dr. Jekyll rolled to his right and waited so long that tight end Cory Harkey, standing in the back of the end zone, thought Craft was going to run.

Then, suddenly, the ball fell neatly into Harkey's hands for the winning touchdown against Stanford.

Afterward, linebacker Reggie Carter summed things up, saying, "I wasn't worried. Craft gets it done in those pressure situations. We had two minutes left. When there are 15 minutes left, then you worry."

No one to date has described any better the enigma that is Craft.

Craft and the Bruins have been forced into a hurry-up offense eight times at the end of halves or games this season. They have six scores -- three touchdowns, three field goals.

The other 28 minutes each half? Well, Craft ranks ninth in passing efficiency among Pacific 10 Conference quarterbacks.

The "why?" in this evil-twin scenario has stumped the experts.

Says UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel: "If I knew, I'd tell you."

Says offensive coordinator Norm Chow: "If I had the answer, I'd be out there making some money."

Says Craft: "Your guess is as good as mine."

What was clear to all is that Craft stood on the precipice against Stanford.

Late in the second quarter, Craft fumbled under pressure, setting up a Stanford touchdown. Chris Forcier, the Bruins' backup quarterback, was told to warm up.

"Kevin has had trouble focusing on everything he needs to focus on," Neuheisel said. "There were mistakes early in the game and the fumble kind of pushed me over the edge a little bit."

Chow talked Neuheisel out of making a change. On the next possession, Craft closed the half with an 88-yard drive that produced a field goal.

On the winning drive, Craft completed six of seven passes for 60 of the 87 yards the Bruins covered.

It's just that Neuheisel would prefer to have fewer cardiac moments. Getting production spread over an entire game has been the challenge.

"Kevin works really hard preparing for games," Neuheisel said. "I sit in on many of the quarterback meetings and he listens and asks questions and everything is right on. I don't know why he goes through a period of struggles in games."

Craft had four passes intercepted during the first half in the opener against Tennessee. On one play against Brigham Young, he tripped over his own feet for a 10-yard loss. His passes were wild high, low and wide throughout the first half against Oregon.

The sideline frustration simmers, then boils over. After the third interception by Tennessee, Neuheisel was seen yelling at his quarterback.

"He really says nothing back," Neuheisel said of the times he has chewed out Craft. "Maybe that's what gets me more upset. He sits and listens, wondering why is this crazy person losing it. He's a resilient son of a gun."

Chow sees more in those moments.

"They'll show Rick ranting at him, but what people don't see is five minutes later when Rick has his arm around the kid and talking with him," Chow said. "It's like with your children, sometimes the expectations are too high."

Besides, the quarterback who seems so jittery has the nerves of a bomb-disposal specialist when the clock ticks down.

Six times this season, the Bruins have put points on the board with less than a minute left in a game or half. Three times with no time left. Craft has completed 65% of his passes in a hurry-up offense.

"Some quarterbacks respond better when there is less time to think," said Steve Clarkson, a private quarterback coach who has tutored several college and professional players.

"The hurry-up offense seems to suit Kevin from what I have seen. He reacts on instinct rather than thought. The proof is there, all you have to do is watch the times he runs the hurry-up versus the times he's standing in the huddle, getting the play, processing the information."

Clarkson said that former Brigham Young quarterback John Walsh was similar, adding that former USC quarterback Matt Leinart also functioned better when the offense was at a faster tempo.

Neuheisel sees a difference, starting with Craft's body language.

"When he calls plays, reading them off the chart on his wrist, he just looks different," Neuheisel said. "None of that is going on during the two-minute offense. So maybe that is taking away his focus. I don't know."

Craft ran a no-huddle offense out of the shotgun formation at Mt. San Antonio College last year. That background left him well-suited to produce quick scores.

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