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UCLA FOOTBALL

Bruin fans hope for the right repeat performance from Kevin Craft

Saturday's trip to Stanford conjures contrasting memories of the senior quarterback's last start on the road (bad) and his last game against the Cardinal (good).

October 01, 2009|Chris Foster

A trip down memory lane with UCLA quarterback Kevin Craft, who will face Stanford in Palo Alto on Saturday:

The last time Craft started a road game, he produced big -- for Arizona State. Interception returns of 38, 45, 100 yards by the Sun Devils were the longest scoring plays Craft "created" during the 2008 season.

The last time Craft faced Stanford, he took the Bruins on an 87-yard drive in the last two minutes, finishing with a game-winning touchdown pass.

That's the Craft UCLA hopes it is getting Saturday.

"Funny, it feels like last season was a long time ago, in the sense of games and our record," the soft-spoken Craft says. "But out on the field, it feels like it never went away."

Craft, a senior, was the full-time starter last season, having been thrust into the role when UCLA's top quarterbacks, Patrick Cowan and Ben Olson, were lost because of injuries.

This season, he's the backup, making his second start this week because Kevin Prince is not ready to return from the broken jaw he suffered against Tennessee three weeks ago.

"The game is the same for me," Craft says of the differences between starting and relieving. "Kevin and I would talk on the sideline, and every third down I would be into it -- 'Come on, let's get this.' It's the same high and lows."

He adds, "It feels like yesterday that I was the No. 1 quarterback. I'm not nervous or uncomfortable."

Others may be, judging by the volume of angst in cyber space produced by jittery Bruins fans.

How quickly they forget. Craft turned in his best performance of last season in a 23-20 victory over the Cardinal.

Despite suffering seven sacks, he completed 23 of 39 pass for 285 yards and two touchdowns. The cherry on top was a seven-yard touchdown pass to Cory Harkey with 10 seconds left.

Twice Craft took the Bruins on late scoring drives -- one that ended in a field goal at the end of the first half and the other in the game's final minutes, when he completed six of seven passes for 60 yards.

Craft also guided the Bruins to a late go-ahead touchdown in the season opener against Tennessee, won by the Bruins in overtime, 27-24. But as cool as he was in those pressure situations, he was even more skittish during the general run of play.

"My theory would be that there's a task at hand and it eliminates a lot of the outside stuff," Coach Rick Neuheisel says of Craft's late-game success.

Neuheisel spent last season saying that Craft needed to slow his thought process, but late in games, the coach now says, "Maybe the game goes up to his level, like changing a record speed from 33 to 45. Now he can understand the music."

Last year's Stanford game, which was played Oct. 18, was the last merry tune Craft would hum in 2008. The Bruins won only one more game, beating winless Washington, and Craft had a school-record 20 passes intercepted.

Stanford came away with only one of those interceptions, though, and Coach Jim Harbaugh doesn't feel his team is getting any kind of break with UCLA turning to its backup. "He is very resourceful and athletic," Harbaugh says of Craft. "I always felt he was their best quarterback."

For the Bruins, he's the best available. In UCLA's last game, two weeks ago against Kansas State, Craft completed 13 of 24 passes for 186 yards and a touchdown.

Saturday probably will be his last start before Prince returns.

"I'm not selfish at all," Craft says. "Whoever the coaches think will give us the best chance to win, that's fine. If Kevin goes down again, I'm ready.

"That's important to the team. I'm around these guys more than just on the field, practice and games. These are my friends and we hang out together. I kind of feel I owe it to them, as well as to myself, to be prepared."

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chris.foster@latimes.com

twitter.com/cfosterlatimes

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