The image was poignant.
There was UCLA quarterback Kevin Craft, surrounded by the media, talking about remaining calm. There, on the Rose Bowl’s giant video screen, was Bruins Coach Rick Neuheisel being anything but sedate, whipping fans into a frenzy.
The reason for both photo ops could be seen in the faces of the Tennessee players as the 18th-ranked Volunteers trudged off the field following UCLA’s 27-24 victory in overtime.
“Look at Coach Neuheisel,” Craft said. “He’s driving them nuts.”
The emotion of the moment was oozing from Neuheisel, with a fireworks display as a backdrop, moments after Tennessee’s Daniel Lincoln hooked a 34-yard field-goal attempt wide left. It gave Neuheisel his first victory as head coach of his alma mater, with a soda pop bath from players a gooey reminder of the sticky situation his team had survived.
Yet, the level pulse Craft displayed in describing the game in monotone voice was just as symbolic.
Through the first half, Craft would drop back to pass and the Volunteers band would cue up “Rocky Top.” Four of his passes in the half were intercepted, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
Yet, it was Craft who was humming a merry tune at the end. He took the Bruins on two fourth-quarter drives that produced touchdowns, then waited out overtime. When Kai Forbath’s 42-yard field goal held up as the game-winner, Craft was unruffled in the postgame postmortem.
“I didn’t get rattled at halftime,” Craft said. “I have played this game before.”
Besides, he said, “the whole team came to me and said, ‘We got your back.’ Guys came up to me before the start of the second half and said the same thing.”
Comforting words that led to a half of discomfort for the Volunteers.
Craft completed 18 of 25 passes for 193 yards after halftime.
He drove the Bruins 80 yards, completing six of six passes for 71 yards. The drive ended with a three-yard touchdown run by Raymond Carter that gave the Bruins a 17-14 lead with seven minutes left.
It lasted five minutes, the time it took for the Volunteers to drive for a touchdown.
Craft shrugged when asked about the disappointment. “We went back to work,” he said.
He took the Bruins 70 yards, completing six of eight passes for 66 yards. He finished it with a three-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Moya that would have been the game-winner if the game had been Hollywood scripted.
But Lincoln, who had missed previous kicks from 51 and 55 yards, hit a 47-yard field goal to send the game into overtime.
“You know, if he’d made the kick in overtime to tie it again, we would have just gone back out there and tried to find a way to win,” Craft said. “That’s what we do.”
The Bruins indeed looked like survivalists. Their expectations before the game were low, with Craft, a community college transfer, at quarterback and an offensive line that was suspect.
Those fears played out in the first half. The Bruins were unable to run the ball, particularly after starting tailback Kahlil Bell was injured in the first quarter, and they finished with only 29 yards rushing. Craft was under near-constant pressure.
Neuheisel appeared to berate Craft on the sideline after each poor throw, especially after Nevin McKenzie returned an interception 61 yards to give the Volunteers a 14-7 lead with 23 seconds left in the half.
“He kept telling me, ‘We can’t do that, you’re throwing too high,’ ” Craft said. “He told me to settle down and take what they give us, go underneath. Coach [Norm] Chow [the offensive coordinator] and Coach Neuheisel made some great adjustments at halftime.”
Neuheisel, though, said he never considered pulling Craft.
“I just went to him and said, ‘I threw four interceptions in my first game and [Coach] Terry Donahue waited three games before pulling me,” Neuheisel said. “What was really gratifying was the kids rallying around him and believing in him.”
They had that luxury because the defense and special teams kept the game close.
Akeem Ayers blocked a punt and Sean Westgate returned it 17 yards for a 7-0 UCLA lead late in the first quarter. The Bruins’ defense bent at times, but allowed only one touchdown through three quarters. Tennessee quarterback Jonathan Crompton completed 19 of 41 passes for 189 yards.
“Defense is how we’re going to make our living this year,” Craft said.
Maybe, but it was Craft who cashed out a winner Monday.
“I love that guy,” defensive tackle Brigham Harwell said. “We believed in him and he showed we had a right to.”
Character counts as UCLA toughs out a victory.
See Lonnie White’s Xs and O’s column at latimes.com
Chris Dufresne: Win deserves to go down in Bruins lore, it was so unpredictable. D4