Second-half transformation elevates Craft, Bruins

PASADENA, Calif. -- Is it a good thing when the best quarterback on the Rose Bowl field for much of Monday evening was little Avery Embry, No. 14 in your program?

Haven't heard of him? Good arm. Quick. Doesn't make mistakes.

Problem is, he didn't play for either UCLA or Tennessee. He played for the Santa Margarita Titans of the Pop Warner League, Junior Mighty Mite age/weight category. And during halftime, he kicked a little Junior Mighty Mite butt.

UCLA's Kevin Craft during the first two quarters? Not so much.

One day, Craft is going to laugh about what happened here during that first half on a muggy September night. Or maybe not.

Five months ago, Craft was the Bruins' third-string quarterback. A month ago, he was their second-string quarterback. Monday night he was their emergency starter.

In front of 68,546 people.

Behind an offensive line so green they could be mistaken for peas.

Against the No. 18-ranked (why, I'm not sure) team in the country.

Four first-half interceptions and a grand total of 66 passing yards later, Craft and his bug-eyed coach, Rick Neuheisel, returned to the UCLA locker room to the sound of boos, but trailing, incredibly enough, by only seven points. Craft was so off-the-charts horrible that you could almost hear Neuheisel's hair turn gray.

"We weren't real kind to him at halftime," said UCLA offensive coordinator Norm Chow.

Nobody was. I ducked into the Rose Bowl public-address control room at halftime. Embry's Santa Margarita team was playing the Tustin Cobras.

"This game is better than the UCLA game," muttered one of the control room officials.

"At least he [motioning toward the Junior Mighty Mite] hasn't thrown any picks," said another worker.

But as the Bruins prepared to return to the field, player after player approached Craft, the junior college transfer from Mt. San Antonio College. The message was always the same.

"We got your back, no matter what happens," linebacker Korey Bosworth said.

Don't ask how -- I'm not sure Craft even knows -- but the first half from hell turned into the second half from heaven. Craft began throwing completions, this time to his own teammates. And by the end of UCLA's 27-24 overtime win, Craft had become part of gutty little Bruins football lore.

"I know I can play," Craft said. "I know how to play the game."

He said this while standing in front of his locker 45 minutes after the win. He was still wearing his uniform and at one point he wrung out a pool of sweat from his undershirt.

As the mini-cams pushed closer to Craft, senior defensive tackle Brigham Harwell tapped him on the shoulder pads, leaned in and said, "Love you, man."

Patrick Cowan was supposed to be the quarterback of this team. Then he got hurt during spring practice. Ben Olson was supposed to take Cowan's place. Then he got hurt during spring practice and again in fall practice.

On the warm body front, that left Craft. If that didn't work, well, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and John Wooden were at the game Monday night.

Neuheisel, the former UCLA walk-on quarterback who went on to Rose Bowl glory, said he never came close to pulling Craft from the lineup. The truth is, they didn't have anybody else. Chris Forcier was available, but nobody was in a hurry to see a redshirt freshman jog out to the huddle.

"I threw four interceptions in my first start, too," Neuheisel said, "and I didn't turn out terrible."

Neuheisel knew there'd be games like this. After all, there's a reason why he was hired to return his alma mater to respectability. Or, as it said in the recent UCLA ad in the Los Angeles Times: end the football monopoly that is USC and Pete Carroll Inc.

Here's guessing the Trojans were giggling as they watched Craft crash and burn during that first half. Neuheisel's reaction to each interception was great television. Anguish. Hands over head. Popsicle-red face.

Meanwhile, up in the UCLA coaches booth, Chow kept adjusting the play-call sheet.

"He threw two balls he had no business throwing," Chow said. "He would force things."

After the fourth interception, which resulted in a 61-yard touchdown return by Tennessee linebacker Nevin McKenzie, UCLA wide receiver Terrence Austin made a beeline for Craft.

"So what?" Austin told him. "It's the second quarter. Don't even worry about this."

And that's the weird thing: he didn't. He didn't worry about the boos, or Neuheisel in his face, or the three Bruins senior starters who went down in the first half (tight end Logan Paulsen, running back Kahlil Bell and wide receiver Marcus Everett). Instead, he recovered.

Craft's second-half total: 18-of-25 for 193 yards, one touchdown, zero interceptions. By game's end he had completed passes to nine different Bruins receivers. He also had withstood everything Tennessee and the crowd could heave his way.

"I knew he wasn't going to let us down," Bosworth said. "He didn't look like a juco transfer."

Transfer? In the second half, Craft looked like UCLA's answer. If nothing else, he looked better than Tennessee's new quarterback, Jonathan Crompton. Crompton had a mostly gruesome second half (8-of-18 for 80 yards). He finished 19-of-41 for 189 yards and no touchdowns.

UCLA has 12 days before its next game, a road trip to No. 16 BYU. But for now, the Bruins celebrate.

"Coca-Cola baths are not good for my hair," said a giddy Neuheisel, who thanked the Bruins fans after the game on the cheerleader loudspeaker system. "But I'll take it."

Take it and savor it. Craft will.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.