Early on this season, Kevin Prince was paying scared.
Saturday night against Colorado, Prince played like a king.
In what was arguably the best all-around game of his career at UCLA, Prince completed 15 of 19 passes for 225 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 84 yards in 16 carries as the Bruins trounced Colorado, 45-6, to keep control of the Pac-12 South division race.
His completion percentage of 78.9 percent was a career high if you don't count the 3-for-3 performance he had before getting injured in this season against Houston, and he had never thrown more than two touchdowns in a game.
The rushing total was the second most in his career, behind only the 163 he had Oct. 29 against California, and Prince's elevated level of play is a big reason why the Bruins have won three of their last four games and enter the final week still alive for the Pac-12 title.
"I feel comfortable with everything and obviously I feel confident," Prince said. "I like how coach [offensive coordinator Mike] Johnson is calling plays and what the receivers are doing and what the guys up front are doing for us and the way that Johnathan [Franklin] and Derrick [Coleman] are running the ball. We’re kind of clicking right now."
An offense in sync starts with the quarterback and UCLA's offense was nothing close to in sync six weeks ago when Prince was booed off the field for throwing three first-quarter interceptions in a 49-20 loss to Texas.
That was a different Prince. He was playing scared then, afraid of getting hurt, afraid of throwing interceptions and afraid of getting pulled off the field. And all playing that way did was lead to him getting hurt, throwing interceptions and getting pulled off the field.
A couple of weeks on the bench and an injury to replacement Richard Brehaut brought Prince back and he's slowly rounded into form since then. UCLA has won four of the six games in which Prince has taken the majority of the snaps and the offense has found a groove running the ball and hitting some downfield passes.
"A complete game," said coach Rick Neuheisel, a notoriously harsh grader of quarterbacks, when asked to assess Prince's performance Saturday night. "He ran, he threw, and that is exactly what the quarterback in this offense needs to do. He needs to be able to handle both parts of the job and be able to take advantage of big plays when they are available and he did that."
Big plays have been the keys to Prince's success. He's made them with his arm and his legs during the recent run of success. against Washington State, he hit two long passes to Nelson Rosario. Against Cal, he had four rushes of 20 yards or more. Against Arizona State it was a 76-yard touchdown to Rosario and Saturday against Colorado, he hit Shaquelle Evans on a 54-yard touchdown on UCLA's second play from scrimmage.
Johnson credits Prince's play for a turnaround in his confidence level.
"Accomplishment builds confidence, which instills belief and it has to go in that order," Johnson said. "He’s playing better and playing well at certain times in the latter part of the season and the more he does it, the more confident he’ll become."
Getting into a rhythm as a starter has helped as well. Prince had the starting job to start the season, but quickly lost it to Brehaut because of a shoulder injury in the season opener. He returned tot he starting role against Texas, but never got comfortable and Neuheisel sent him to the bench.
When Brehaut broke his leg against Washington State, Prince said it allowed him to begin playing a little more freely because he wasn't constantly looking over his shoulder waiting for Neuheisel to yank him from the game.
"It’s easier obviously when there’s not a guy on the sideline waiting for you to screw up," Prince said. "It’s easy to get into a rhythm."
Prince's ability to run the ball and make the correct reads in the run game is a big reason why he was the quarterback of choice at the beginning of the season. His troubles passing the ball is why he lost the job, but as the season wears on, he's beginning to use his running ability to open up the passing game.
"With his running ability the defense has one more player they have to account for," Johnson said. "And if he’s able to hit the one-on-one balls that he's hit over the last few games, that's when this offense is at its best. We need to find some consistency there and it seems were right there."
The key now for Prince is to keep his confidence level up. Brehaut has begun to practice again and could be game ready as soon as this week. That means a healthy replacement will be lurking on the sidelines once again.
"I’m going to have to continue to stay comfortable and be confident and execute all the time so I can continue to stay on the field," Prince said. "I think I'm up to the challenge."