Craft did show a painful perseverance for UCLA

He just turned 23 a month ago, and so maybe he’s not a kid, but this is still a college experience.

And so watching Kevin Craft play quarterback for the Bruins on Friday night, while amusing in its oddity and folly, became painful to watch.

The young man fumbled in his own end zone, a kind referee’s spot of the ball preventing UCLA from absorbing a safety.


The young man fumbled again, Arizona State looking as if it were waiting for the referee to intervene once more before getting around to picking up the ball and walking it in for a touchdown.

The young man had a pass intercepted, Arizona State returning it for a touchdown.

The young man had the Bruins in position to score and maybe tie things up with a two-point conversion. He lofted a pass into the end zone only to watch it be picked off and returned 100 yards for an Arizona State touchdown.

Yes, it could get worse.

The young man had another pass intercepted and returned by Arizona State for a touchdown, the Sun Devils managing only 122 yards in offense and a pair of field goals but scoring 34 points thanks mostly to the efforts of the young man playing quarterback for the Bruins.

“I’ve been around something like 35 years,” said Arizona State Coach Dennis Erickson, “and I’ve never seen that many points scored on defense in my life. I’m going to put that defensive tape in my archives.”

As embarrassing and unusual as it was, UCLA being sabotaged by its quarterback, no longer bowl-eligible and awaiting USC next, it doesn’t even begin to explain what Craft endured.

He got hit, hounded and pounded because he’s playing behind a substandard Pacific 10 Conference offensive line on a team that lacks the running game to take some of the pressure off of him.

Forced from the game at one point because of injury, he’s tough, all right, returning to place himself in harm’s way.

That’s what he’s supposed to do as a competitor, of course, and maybe he’s not as good as he should be to be playing the position for UCLA, but there should be a limit to public humiliation.

Whatever happens next, and apparently he has another year of eligibility to be punished, he showed something special against Arizona State.

He hung in there, and when mercifully removed midway through the fourth quarter, he stood on the sideline still engaged in the game his teammates were playing.

“I think my parents have a lot to do with that -- doing things the right way,” Craft said. “I just want to play for these guys and do whatever I can to help them.”

And when the slaughter was over, many of the Bruins running directly to the locker room, Craft walked across the field to congratulate the Sun Devils.

He showed something, all right, probably not what he had in mind when the night started, but it was still pretty impressive.

AS FOR the Bruins, this was supposed to be exciting, two teams evenly matched in a colossal struggle for bragging rights to see who might finish as high as sixth in the Pac-10.

The Emerald Bowl had a scout here indicating the magnitude of this encounter, everyone on edge back in San Francisco because they might be encouraged to buy tickets to see one of these teams play.

You can throw away the record books because neither one of these teams is in them, but still this one had huge implications.

The loser would become bowl-ineligible, and so I just had to be here -- never missing one of UCLA’s bowl games under Karl Dorrell -- the Survival Bowl maybe as good as it was going to get for Preacher Rick this year.

You can just imagine the buzz in the Phoenix area for this one, the stadium less than half-filled, but five or six fans showing up after the kickoff.

The Bruins came here having defeated Stanford, Washington and Washington State, and so had the Sun Devils. UCLA whipped four opponents with a combined record of 11-35; Arizona State won its four against a group 13-33.

But here they were together on ESPN2 where some folks might have been expecting the World Series of Poker only to catch Arizona State’s first offensive play -- a dropped pass.

It’d go that way all night long, one miscue after another, this game looking more like one of those wacky Emerald nuts commercials than a gut-check bid to play in a bowl game.

But who thought it would come to this for UCLA -- must-wins over Arizona State and USC -- after the Bruins opened the season with an expectation-raising, giddy upset of Tennessee?

OK, so later everyone would learn Tennessee was no good, losing to Wyoming too, finishing 4-8 and firing its coach.

Take it all into account now, and what do we make of these Bruins under Preacher Rick, who have failed so far to beat a team eligible for bowl consideration?

Sure, the Bruins were inconsistent under Dorrell, but they won some big games and they played in a bowl game every year he was on the job.

Preacher Rick likes to be the voice of optimism, but there’s no way to suggest things are looking up for the UCLA football program the way this season has unfolded. It has been a disaster, and a team needing those extra practice days that come with a bowl assignment, as much as any team, getting none.

The best anyone can hope for now is spirited play against USC to avoid yet another slaughter, and Craft walking off the field unhurt.

After all, I don’t reckon the Trojans will show much mercy.