Blood streamed in a river from Kevin Prince’s mouth -- the painful aftermath of a shot to the jaw he’ll remember the rest of his life, a shot that may help propel UCLA through this still-young season and possibly many more to come.
It happened with the game up for grabs down in Knoxville. It happened against a desperate opponent, amid an orange ocean of frenzied, angry, desperate fans. The ball was on his own two-yard line, there was less than two minutes left, UCLA was ahead, 19-13. The quarterback rolled right and looked to pass and then suddenly -- BAM! -- down goes Prince in a painful end zone heap. Safety. Two points, Tennessee.
The game could have turned here, could have been lost. What a painful sting that would have been. But from that heap, a place he’d been much of this warm Southern Saturday, up popped Prince, giving his team belief. He was hunched over in pain. His mouth was open wide and full of red. But he never looked afraid or tentative. He looked like the winner he was about to be.
UCLA learned much in this game. It now knows, for certain, that its defense can apply the brakes, which is what happened during a goal-line stand late in what became a 19-15 win. And it now unquestionably also knows that at quarterback, the most important player on the field because the ball is in his hands so often, UCLA is manned by a kid who has something special burning inside.
“Guts,” said teammate Terrence Austin in the locker room when the game was done.
“Heart,” said another teammate, Rahim Moore.
“Composure,” added offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who compared his 19-year-old pupil to one he coached at Brigham Young many years back: Ty Detmer. “Kevin discovered he can control a game today. Stats don’t mean everything and this game was proof. It wasn’t always pretty, but he showed through his body language he will to do what it takes.”
No, it wasn’t pretty. Prince had one touchdown. He had 11 completions in 23 attempts. He threw for 101 yards. Maybe his greatest statistical contribution was that, facing a team with a Heisman candidate at safety, he did something that last year would have been unthinkable: There were no interceptions, no picks for 70-yard returns. This from a UCLA quarterback -- yes, you read that right.
The stats weren’t great but what Prince did do, with a calm look that belied his admitted case of nerves, was help stare down a team bent on revenge for last year’s loss in Pasadena. And help silence more than 100,000 fans whose lives clearly hang on the fate of Tennessee football. And help wipe the perma-smirk from new Volunteers Coach Lane Kiffin.
“I just tried to hang in there and keep us in the game,” said Prince when it was done. Blood dripped from his lips. There were cuts and scrapes and cherry-colored welts on his chin, neck, arms and legs. “I struggled as far as passing, but I just wanted to do what it would take to win this game. . . . I just wanted to protect the ball and give us a chance because they were coming. I’ve never heard it so loud, never been hit this hard.”
In the days and hours leading up to this game, every other sentence uttered in Knoxville was about how the Tennessee defense planned to put the redshirt freshman firmly on his keister, all day long and with not a drop of mercy. They did. The first half was particularly nasty. Prince was slapped, kicked, shoved, tackled and just generally treated like a ragamuffin on just about every play.
But unlike what happened most of last season -- except, oddly enough, against Tennessee -- UCLA’s lead man kept bouncing up like a boxer unwilling to let a bigger opponent see fear.
It was, to hear Chow tell it, the little things, the moments when few had their eyes directly on No. 14, that mattered most and showed what he’s got.
There’s Prince throwing nice little flares for completions but sometimes following them with ugly wobblers that skip sadly on the grass. Unaffected, unnerved, he confidently walks back to the huddle looking the same way after either outcome.
There he is too, nailing a receiver who fumbles the ball, which spins off unpredictably into a pile. Clear-headed, he sprints 20 yards to the scrum, ready to pounce on the fumble if it comes his way.
There he is on his back, waffle-flat after another hit -- but thrusting a fist to the sky because he’s just uncorked the pass that was his only touchdown.
And there he is, finally, the game over, walking with a swollen jaw and an easy smile on a field surrounded by thousands of stone-faced Tennesseans. “USC! USC! U . . . S . . . C!” some of them chant. Prince can clearly care less.
“I sure made a lot of mistakes I have to clean up,” Prince said, words slurry because his mouth is shot through with pain. “But we came through and we got the victory, which we believed we could do.
“This was a great place to play, a great place to pass a test. . . . We can’t wait for the rest of this season.”
Can’t wait? Neither can Bruins fans. With this kind of quarterback -- this composed, promising and tough -- it’s looking like a season of blood and guts and possibly more wins than ever honestly imagined.