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Kevin Prince arrives at crossroads

When Kevin Prince takes the field at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night, he has a pretty good idea that a lot of eyes will be focused on him.

This time, he hopes he doesn't feel them.

That hasn't been the case so far this season for Prince, the UCLA quarterback whose poor performances are a major reason why the Bruins have the nation's lowest-rated passing offense and are winless through two weeks.

The game feels different than it did last year. Things are moving faster -- his mind is moving faster -- which is a strange phenomenon for a returning starter known for his poise.

"There's times that, when you go out there, you know what you're doing but the game gets the best of you," Prince said. "You forget things and you lock on to things and you start playing safe. You can't play like that. This year I have been."

A turnaround Saturday night against Houston is imperative. The Cougars led the nation in scoring last season and lead the nation again this year, so the Bruins will almost certainly have to generate some offense in order to keep pace.

But more pressing on the minds of Bruins fans is that UCLA is off to its worst start since 1997 and has been 0-3 only once since World War II. The Bruins would like to keep it that way and doing so depends, in large part, on Prince.

But outside pressures are nothing compared to what Prince has felt inside the past couple of weeks. He's been suffering from a confidence-sapping inability to execute and a self-described lack of focus on the field.

A lack of preparation -- Prince has missed significant practice time because of injuries -- has caused a regression, and rookie mistakes, such as missing reads, locking on to receivers and tightening up at crunch time, have cropped up on game days.

"It's frustrating because I have played a season and all that," he said. "I feel like those mistakes should be behind me."

Instead the problems have snowballed as UCLA has become one of the worst offenses in the nation, ranking last among the 120 FBS schools in passing efficiency.

Prince has completed 15 of 38 passes for 159 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions for a paltry passer rating of 67.52. He had only 39 yards passing last week in a 35-0 loss to Stanford, and if you take away a desperation, two-play scoring drive against a prevent defense at Kansas State in Week 1, he'd have only 95 yards passing and no touchdowns in two games.

Coach Rick Neuheisel toyed with the idea of benching Prince, but the coach is sticking with him this week, hoping his quarterback will get over the deer-in-headlights syndrome.

"You have to have the ability to block out 'Oh my god this is the game,'" Neuheisel said. "If you go out there and you're tight and high-strung, things look like they're going 100 miles an hour. That's usually the first thing you can see from somebody who's struggling, is they're going too fast because they think everything is moving too quickly."

There is good reason to believe that a turnaround is ahead. The oblique injury and shoulder soreness that have hampered Prince since August and clearly affected his timing and rhythm are gone. This week, he's had a full week of practice and has looked better than he has all year.

His return to full health is a major reason why he's getting the start despite his poor performance so far. Neuheisel and offensive coordinator Norm Chow simply want to see what he can do after a full week of practice, and so far it seems to be paying off.

"I feel a lot more relaxed because I can finally do things the way I want to do them," he said. "I can finally start throwing the ball and making it come out of my hand the way I want it to."

Perhaps his health is all Prince needs to get back on track. Last season, when he started 11 games as a redshirt freshman, he passed for 2,050 yards, including three 300-yard passing games, and led the Bruins to a victory in the Eagle Bank Bowl. Expectations for this season were high.

"He should be amongst the better quarterbacks in the league," Chow said. "He really should. And he knows that."

Neuheisel and Chow have worked diligently this week to restore Prince's confidence. They've had office meetings with Prince several times and Chow even approached Prince's father in an attempt to hash out the mental issues Prince is facing when he steps on the field.

"He's a worrywart," Chow said. "He tends to hold on to stuff that he isn't doing as well as he should. He's got to grow up. To be a quarterback you have to have a short memory. Let it go. If you miss one, don't compound it by missing the next one. It's no big psychological thing going on."

Prince is fully aware that the Bruins' offense needs to improve. UCLA is averaging only 11 points a game and ranks among the bottom 10 in the nation in scoring, total offense and passing offense. He's also aware that a calm, focused quarterback is key to turning it around.

"If you look like you have a panicked look on your face then the next guy is going to feel the same way," he said. "And if they can't have confidence in you then they can't really feel too confident."

And with the nagging physical problems seemingly behind him, Prince said his confidence has returned.

"Just being able to go throw and not have to worry about all the other stuff I was dealing with definitely helps in my confidence and the rhythm of the team," he said.

Now, Chow said, it's time to show that on the field.

"Talk is cheap," Chow said. "You've got to go out and perform. Kevin better be a little bit more productive than he has been, no question."

And there's also no question that there will be plenty of eyes watching Saturday night to see if he is.

Peter Yoon covers UCLA for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.