PASADENA, Cal. –UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel had a triumphant comeback Monday night, but it was nothing compared to that of Bruins quarterback Kevin Craft.
A third-stringer who was starting only because of injuries, Craft appeared inept and overmatched in throwing four first-half interceptions. But he rebounded with an amazing second-half performance and led the Bruins to a stunning 27-24 comeback victory over Tennessee in overtime at the Rose Bowl.
The box score will show that Kai Forbath's 42-yard field goal in overtime lifted UCLA to the shocking upset of the 18th-ranked Volunteers. But a strong argument can be made that the real work was done in the locker room at halftime, when Neuheisel and UCLA offensive coordinator Norm Chow talked Craft off an emotional ledge.
"Coach Neuheisel and Coach Chow did a really good job with me as far as calming me down," Craft said. "The whole game (Neuheisel) told me to stay calm. I had four picks and he just said, 'You can't do that. We've got to do this next time.'
"He told me to settle down and take what they give us and go underneath. I don't think I was rattled at all. Halftime gave me a chance to settle down."
Did it ever.
Craft, who started his career at San Diego State and was the California junior college player of the year last season, was 7-of-18 for 66 yards in the first half. The last of his four interceptions came with 23 seconds left in the half, and linebacker Nevin McKenzie returned it 61 yards for a 14-7 Tennessee lead.
UCLA 27, TENNESSEE 24
UCLA quarterback Kevin Craft shook off a horrible first half to lead the Bruins to the overtime upset of Tennessee. Craft threw four first-half interceptions, including one returned 61 yards for a touchdown that staked Tennessee to a 14-7 halftime lead. But the Vols' offense struggled throughout, and UCLA heated up in the second half. Craft led the Bruins on two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter; the second TD gave the Bruins a 24-21 lead with 27 seconds left. That was enough time for Tennessee to set up Daniel Lincoln's 47-yard field goal on the final play of regulation. But after UCLA's Kai Forbath connected from 42 yards out in OT, Lincoln was wide left on a 34-yard attempt that would've forced another overtime.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF GAME
That would be Craft, whose performance went from abysmal to outstanding. He was 12-of-14 for 139 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter. He was 6-for-6 for 71 yards on an 80-yard drive that gave UCLA a 17-14 lead. Then, after Tennessee regained the lead, Craft was 6-for-8 in the two-minute drill. The last one was a 3-yard touchdown toss to Ryan Moya that gave the Bruins the 24-21 lead.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF GAME
Take your pick. Tennessee linebacker Nevin McKenzie returned an interception 61 yards for a touchdown, and fellow linebacker Ellix Wilson posted 12 tackles - including two for losses. On the other side, UCLA CB Alterraun Verner had an interception, broke up two passes and posted six tackles. UCLA defensive end Korey Bosworth - the nephew of former Oklahoma linebacker Brian Bosworth - had a sack to push the Vols out of field-goal range late in the third quarter. But no one on either defense made a big play in the pivotal final quarter.
At halftime, UCLA coaches adjusted their strategy and decided to throw underneath the Tennessee coverage. They had challenged the Volunteers deep in the first half with disastrous results. With more high-percentage passes in the second half, Craft gained confidence and the Bruins more than tripled their offensive production.
UCLA receiver Marcus Everett suffered a sprained big toe in the first quarter. Bruins tailback Kahlil Bell sprained his left ankle in the first half and did not return. And UCLA tight end Logan Paulsen left midway through the second half with a broken foot.
True freshman Rahim Moore started at strong safety for UCLA, marking the first time a true freshman was in the startling lineup in the Bruins' season opener since Matt Ware in 2001. … UCLA's touchdown off a blocked punt was the first time a Tennessee opponent had scored in that manner in the Phil Fulmer era, which began in 1992. … Tennessee running back Arian Foster had 108 all-purpose yards and moved into fourth place on Tennessee's career list with 3,252. Foster, who normally wears No. 27, wore No. 30 in honor of injured teammate David Holbert, who suffered a severe knee injury last spring. … With the victory, Rick Neuheisel became the first UCLA coach to debut with a victory since Terry Donahue in 1976.
At the time, it appeared that might be enough for the Vols to ruin Neuheisel's return to a college sideline. UCLA's only first-half score came via a blocked punt, so there was no reason to expect its offense would be productive with a quarterback who wouldn't have been playing if Patrick Cowan and Ben Olson were healthy.
But in the second half, Craft was 18-of-25 for 193 yards and that big touchdown - and no interceptions - against a Tennessee secondary considered one of the best in the SEC.
"Norm did most of the talking (at halftime)," Neuheisel said. "I told (Craft) I threw four interceptions in my first start, too. I didn't turn out terrible, and (former UCLA coach) Terry Donahue waited for my third game to pull me.
"(Craft) stayed patient. It was gratifying to see the kids rallying around him and believing in him. He stayed poised and you could see him grow in the second half."
Craft might be on the verge of growing into celebrity status based on the fourth quarter. He completed six passes in an 11-play, 80-yard drive that ended with Raymond Carter's 3-yard touchdown run, which gave the Bruins a 17-14 lead with just under seven minutes remaining.
Tennessee, which had quarterback issues of its own, responded with a 13-play drive that Montario Hardesty capped with a 20-yard run for a 21-17 lead with 1:54 left.
Undaunted, Craft quickly led the Bruins back down the field, thanks to completions of 21, 9, 9, 18 and 8 yards. On third-and-goal from the 2, he connected with backup tight end Ryan Moya for the go-ahead touchdown with 27 seconds left.
But it still wasn't over. After a short kickoff and a good return, Vols quarterback Jonathan Crompton completed two passes to get Daniel Lincoln in position for a game-tying 47-yard field goal on the final play of regulation.
After UCLA didn't gain a yard on its overtime possession, Forbath hit his field goal. Lincoln's attempt to again tie the game sailed wide, and the Bruins started celebrating.
That was just the final letdown for Tennessee. Twice, Lincoln missed long field-goal attempts in the first half.
Crompton had some nice moments, such as a 41-yard completion to Josh Briscoe to set up the Vols' first touchdown. But overall he struggled, going just 19-of-41 for 189 yards and an interception.
Even more alarming, when it mattered most, the Vols could not turn away an offense that was being led by a third-string quarterback and had lost three starters - running back Kahlil Bell, tight end Logan Paulsen and wide receiver Marcus Everett - to injuries in the first quarter. That surely is cause for discomfort in Knoxville. The Vols get a breather this week at home against UAB. After a week off, they then get Florida and Auburn back-to-back.
"We made enough mistakes to lose three, four or five football games," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. "Whether it was offensively, defensively or the kicking game … you can choose any of them.
"They are things that are fixable. I don't think we found any kind of rhythm on offense during the course of the evening. You have to give UCLA a lot of credit for that."
And Neuheisel will get a lot of credit for rejuvenating UCLA, which celebrated the upset with a colorful fireworks display.
His return to Westwood was celebrated and heralded as the beginning of the end to crosstown rival USC's dominance in Los Angeles. Indeed, an ad appeared recently in a local newspaper featuring an image of Neuheisel and the bold proclamation that, "The football monopoly in Los Angeles is now officially over."
That's grossly premature. But judging by the comeback Monday – both Neuheisel's and Craft's – at least there is hope in Westwood.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.