Last year, when UCLA beat Nebraska, Tracy wrote a recap describing how the win felt different from previous years -- it wasn't just a fluky early season win over a big out-of-conference opponent (which UCLA has somehow managed to achieve consistently even through the forgettable years), but a signifier of something more. Last year's 36-30 win didn't feel as if the Bruins eked out the victory, but more like they were the better-coached, superior team, even if the score didn't necessarily indicate how UCLA controlled the game.
If that win felt subtly different from years past, Saturday's 41-21 victory over the Cornhuskers was a seismic shift. Traveling to a hostile road environment, kicking off at 9 AM, dealing with the emotional turmoil of losing Nick Pasquale, and then finding themselves down 21-3 by the middle of the 2nd quarter -- heck, pick any two of those factors, and you would have had enough to get any UCLA team from the past 10 years to completely fold. Instead, the Bruins pulled off their most impressive display of fortitude in the Jim Mora era, scoring 38 unanswered points over the last 31 minutes of the game to pull off the rare double-digit comeback blowout.
It's a huge win, obviously, for the players and coaches, after coming off the emotional week. You could see it from Mora after the game when, talking with the ABC reporter on the field, he made a point of saying how the team won that game for Pasquale. Brett Hundley, during his own interview, could barely finish his answers to the same effect before tearing up a bit.
With all that said, down by 18 points in the second quarter, you'd have to be forgiven if you fell into the trap of thinking these were the same old Bruins. After all, even the team last year fell into the old habits a few times (Baylor, California, Stanford 1). Down 21-3, with no signs of life on offense, this was probably more of the same, you figured.
You certainly had enough evidence to go with your instinct that UCLA was prepared to lay another rotten little egg. Brett Hundley was clearly amped up to start the game and actually looked a little out of character. He tried to hype up the crowd just prior to the first snap, and then throughout the first quarter looked shaky. He fumbled on his first play and threw an interception on his second drive, but the biggest issue early on seemed to be poor or slow decision-making on read plays, which UCLA went to often early. It looked as if he made the wrong read several times, whether giving or keeping the ball, which led to some stalling in the running game. As a passer, he was off on many throws early, sailing a few beyond the reach of receivers, but also reverting to old habits, like throwing drag routes behind his receivers.
The interesting thing, though, and the first thought that might have made you pump the brakes a bit on the BBS (Battered Bruin Syndrome), was that Hundley was really the only big problem early on. Yes, Jordon James spent the entire first quarter dancing behind the line of scrimmage, but many of those runs were poor reads by Hundley on the handoff where James didn't have a lot of running room to begin with. The scheme, offensively, actually looked pretty good, and if Hundley had elected to keep rather than hand off, or vice versa, at various points, the running game wouldn't have looked anywhere near as bad as it did early. In the passing game, UCLA had open receivers from the first snap, with huge gains for Shaquelle Evans and Grayson Mazzone in the first quarter. The defense, although it got gashed a bit on the one long drive by Nebraska, generally did a passable enough job in the first half to keep the game within reach, as long as the offense could get moving.
The trick for UCLA was simply to give Hundley enough time to settle down, and once Hundley led UCLA to a touchdown with a minute to go in the first half to bring the score to 21-10, you could see an increased level of confidence in the team; after all, it's hard not to feel confidence when your quarterback somehow scrambles for 13 yards after being nearly sacked three times. When Mora spoke to the sideline reporter before half time, he had a smile on his face, which was either a display of impressive bravado, or an example of him visibly doing the same shorthand calculus some of the more cool-headed fans were doing at that point: "If the only thing really wrong was our quarterback, and our quarterback seemed to settle down completely by the end of the half, then we've got nothing to worry about."
With Hundley firmly in control of his faculties, that third quarter was one of the most impressive displays by a UCLA offense in a long, long time. It was that impressive due to the combination of Hundley looking much better than he did in the first half and an increased emphasis on keeping up the pace. To score 28 points in a quarter is an astounding feat in its own right, but to do it as quickly as the Bruins did, with the level of tempo they employed, was almost Oregon-esque. The first touchdown drive took a plodding 3 minutes and 31 seconds. The second took one minute and one second. The third? 1:39. When UCLA finally scored its last touchdown of the quarter in just 45 seconds, you had the sense that Nebraska had already given up.
Not to cast aspersions, but it looked as if, on the first touchdown drive for UCLA in the half, when the Bruins really started to increase tempo, Nebraska might have faked an injury on the sideline to slow down the offense. Even if that isn't the case, and the player actually did have an injury that allowed him to bounce back up as soon as the clock was stopped and both teams substituted, it has to be a little bit fun to live in a world where you can suspect other teams are faking injuries to slow down the UCLA offense.
The beauty of an up-tempo offense is that it allows a team to excel without making perfect play calls. Noel Mazzone's offensive scheme is, actually, fairly simple, with only a few base concepts. By going up tempo, though, defenses have little time to read and react to what the offense is showing, and, probably even more important, defenses just get tired. It was obvious throughout fall camp that UCLA was attempting to go even faster between plays than last year, and through two games, it looks like the Bruins have the ability to go at a very fast clip (12 to 14 seconds between plays) for portions of a game.
The offense, truly, has a chance to be special. No matter how bad you think the Nebraska defense is, for the UCLA offense to gain 200+ yards, score four touchdowns, and outscore a team 28-0 in just one quarter while only possessing the ball for six minutes and 56 seconds -- those are spectacular numbers. Despite the losses of Johnathan Franklin and Joseph Fauria, the UCLA offense somehow looks as if it might even be more potent than last year.
Defensively, the Bruins have a great deal of talent, especially at linebacker. Against Nebraska, at times it seemed like Anthony Barr, Myles Jack, and Jordan Zumwalt were just taking turns making big plays. Jack, truly, is a freak, with the ability to cover a receiver or tip a pass at the line of scrimmage while taking on a tackle. With the amount of roles he has on the defense, he might have been in the top three or four on the team for number of snaps played during that game. Barr, too, was freaky, with the forced fumble to start the fourth quarter ending whatever remaining hopes the Cornhuskers had. He was much better on the edge than he was against Nevada, cleaning up several swing passes that could have gone for long gains.
The issues for UCLA defensively are primarily related to the secondary, but in this game, they actually didn't do too badly. Taylor Martinez can't really throw too well, but, even accounting for that, UCLA generally did a good job in coverage, without too many huge breakdowns. On the first touchdown pass by Martinez, UCLA blitzed seven (!) players, leaving everyone in single coverage, and Brandon Sermons guessed an inside route rather than an outside route. On Martinez's deep touchdown pass over Fabian Moreau, Moreau actually covered pretty well, and the arm punt landed somewhat magically in Kenny Bell's arms. Those things happen. Randall Goforth made one of the key plays of the game, as well, when he stopped the offensive lineman from getting a first down on the fake punt.
For the program, and for this season in particular, this victory could be a seminal moment. Beating Nebraska on its home field, in front of 91,000 fans, is no small thing, no matter how good the Cornhuskers end up being (and they might still end up ranked, since they get to play against the pillow-soft Big Ten the rest of the year).
The win also takes a game that was firmly in the "possible loss" pile before the season and slides it into the win column. Looking ahead, as we theorized before the season, you can likely chalk up New Mexico State, Utah, and California as wins (even with the spunk Utah and California have shown offensively so far in the 2013 season). With the win over the Huskers, the Bruins have a pretty decent chance of going into Palo Alto in October with a 5-0 record for what could be a clash of top-ten teams.
We've said a few times that with the hard schedule this season that it'd be difficult for the team, no matter how talented it is, to make a real run at a BCS game, and we've pointed to next year, with a slightly more favorable conference schedule, as the year when it could happen.
And we still think that's the more likely scenario.
If, during the rest of the year, UCLA's offense can come within shouting distance of what it showed in the second half against Nevada and in the third quarter against Nebraska, the Bruins might have a chance to be special. Whether that means the Bruins will hang with Stanford and Oregon in a few weeks' time when they take on both of the powers in the North on successive weekends on the road is anyone's guess. But for the first time in a very long time, you get the feeling that UCLA actually has the tools to compete with the big boys.
It Feels Really Different
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