If I lead this piece off with a cliché as trite as "it was a tale of two halves for Brett Hundley," Bossman Tracy will likely refuse to pay me this month. In reality, though, there's never been a clearer dichotomy in Hundley's play from one half to the next. In the first half, from the opening snap, it was visible how wound up he was: pumping up the crowd before the start of the game, stalking around between plays with pent up energy, seemingly aiming rather than throwing the ball, and making the wrong decision frequently on zone reads. That he fumbled on his first play and was intercepted in his second series seems almost inevitable in retrospect—unless you're a complete tool like Johnny Manziel, being wound tighter than a tourniquet at quarterback won't do you any favors.
Of course, he, like the rest of the team, had reasons for being emotionally amped up heading into the game with the death of Nick Pasquale. It's a tremendous credit to Hundley that he was able to settle himself down by the middle of the second quarter. He seemed to loosen up a bit on the drive that ended with Ka'imi Fairbairn's missed field goal, and then, on the touchdown drive with a minute to go, he seemed to finally find a rhythm. His scramble on 3rd and 12 was the perfect example of what Hundley's agility allows him to do. There's an argument to be made that if Hundley had been sacked on the play, or missed the mark for the first down, this game could have gone the Cornhuskers' way, which might very well have made the entire season an uphill battle for the Bruins. He didn't, though, and on the ensuing drive, he hit Devin Fuller down the sideline on a nice throw that seemingly got him into a throwing groove that he didn't leave for the remainder of the game.
His third quarter was a great showing for him, and his throws to Darius Bell on 3rd and 15 for the first down and Shaquelle Evans for the touchdown stood out. What Hundley has shown throughout his early career at UCLA is an ability to play well under pressure, and that was in evidence throughout the middle of Saturday's game.
In terms of gripes, outside of the initial tumult in the first quarter, we'd like to see Hundley check down to the running back more, since Jordon James was wide open on a couple of swing passes. Two of the sacks he took were unnecessary, where he simply held the ball too long in the pocket. His internal clock seemed to be improved during the offseason, but it's something to watch if that habit of sitting in the pocket too long continues.
Running Back: B
Jordon James began the game looking fairly tentative, dancing behind the line of scrimmage rather than hitting the hole in that first quarter. Much of that was due to Hundley making a few poor reads at the line of scrimmage, but even still, James had holes that he could have hit for positive gains, however minimal. Once Hundley settled down, though, James looked better, which seems pretty obviously linked to Hundley making better decisions on read plays. On the draw play to open that first third quarter drive, James looked electric in the open field, using decent blocking at the line of scrimmage for a long gain to the 50 yard line. His touchdown run behind Alex Redmond was a good example of him using his blockers and not trying to bounce a run outside when it didn't need to go there. He's not the player that Johnathan Franklin was, but through two games, you'd have to say that he's been a welcome surprise.
Paul Perkins received the next most carries, and showed off why many of us were high on him in last year's fall camp. He looked like a natural on the swing pass for a first down in that third quarter, catching the ball with one defender in his sights, easily side-stepping him, and getting a nice 10+ yard gain. After a bit of a disappointing spring and fall, you have to guess that this game will be a big confidence booster for him.
Steven Manfro and Malcolm Jones got minimal work. At this point, we'd have to say that Jones has earned some more carries. He clearly has a better burst than he had his sophomore year, and he's running with a great deal more energy than he ever has. After looking very good against Nevada, and then turning in a nice stretch of runs against Nebraska, it'll be interesting to see if he gets a good amount of work in the tune-up against New Mexico State on Saturday.
We've talked at length about Devin Fuller's ability to get open, and that skillset was on display during Saturday's game. Unfortunately, what was also on display was the other thing we touched on in fall: his, at times, questionable hands. It's the one area where Fuller still needs to put in a considerable amount of work, because he's not a natural pass catcher. He wasn't helped by a couple of poorly thrown balls from Hundley, but if, say, Shaquelle Evans had been the target on those throws, he might have caught both. It may sound absurd to say about a receiver, but given that Fuller brings a great deal to the table in terms of his ability to get open and get yards after the catch, you'll accept the occasional drop. His catch on the first touchdown drive was an excellent play.
Speaking of Evans, he's really solidifying his place as the clear No. 1 receiver on this team. Thanks to Nebraska weirdly sticking with man coverage for most of the game, Evans was able to take two simple hitches and turn them into long gains. His touchdown catch, though, might have been the best play I can remember him making. He gave the defensive back, who covered him well, absolutely no sign that the ball was coming—his head didn't tilt, he didn't extend his arms, and he didn't break stride, only opening his hands at the last moment to catch the ball. True, it took a perfectly thrown ball from Hundley, but you have to credit Evans for having enough trust in Hundley to make that a textbook play. And, it should be said, if Evans spends any time in the NFL, he should probably buy Eric Yarber something nice.
Jordan Payton, Thomas Duarte, Darius Bell, Nate Iese, and Philip Ruhl all had big catches during that big third quarter. UCLA really didn't pass the ball much, though, against Nebraska's defense, so many players that factored in last week, like Darren Andrews, Jalen Ortiz, and Devin Lucien, didn't get as much time. Grayson Mazzone, who got a considerable amount of time in the first half, dropped a first down pass at a pretty critical juncture for UCLA. We'd like to see players like Andrews and Ortiz get a bit more time in the slot, since they may have certain game breaking abilities.
Offensive Line: B+
Another day, another very solid performance for the UCLA offensive line. The Bruins allowed just three sacks during the game, and at least two of them were more Hundley's fault than the fault of the linemen. Torian White did seem like he was struggling at points when matched up one on one with a defensive end, but other than that, the linemen did a very good job in pass protection.
In the run game, the interior of the line was once again the strength. Early on, they had trouble generating a push up front, but as the game wore on, they had increasing success. What's been pretty amazing through the early going of the season is that often, on big plays, UCLA elects to run behind true freshman guard Alex Redmond. On James' touchdown run and Hundley's first quarterback sneak, they ran behind Redmond, who did a nice job of sealing his man to allow them enough room. Redmond had a couple of missed blocks in the game, including a miss on a linebacker who tackled James for a loss on a stretch run, but overall he had a very good game.
Xavier Su'a-Filo was his usual excellent self, making a key block on James' long draw to start the third quarter. Jake Brendel also had a nice game. In short, it was a generally very good performance for UCLA's offensive line, although the Bruins once again didn't have to deal with much blitzing. The offensive line last year had big issues picking up blitzes, especially later in the year, so it'll be interesting to see what happens when they face more aggressive defenses going forward.
Offensive scheme, play calling, and game plan: A-
Even when Hundley wasn't hitting throws or making the right reads, it was clear that the scheme and playcalling were sound. UCLA had good plays called against man coverage, using a variety of hitches and wheel routes to get players open. UCLA primarily ran out of its read option plays throughout the first half, and then in the third quarter, used play action out of the same look to devastating effect.
Also in that third quarter, UCLA went much more up tempo, trying to keep Nebraska's defense on the field and exhausted. We said it in the game review, but the longest scoring drive for UCLA, outside of the clock-killing drive in the fourth, lasted just three minutes and thirty-one seconds. Every other touchdown was scored in less than two minutes. Just so you know, that's impressive.
That clock-killing drive to end the game was actually an encouraging sign as well. Primarily running the ball, UCLA was able to eat up over six minutes of clock while grinding out a field goal. Against Nebraska, it might very well have been the case that UCLA was just trying to be respectful of the opponent, given everything that had transpired during the week, but that kind of drive might be completely necessary against a team like Stanford down the line.
The Big Head-Scratcher Play Call (and you usually can't get through any college football game without one): The lateral pass in the fourth quarter when UCLA just needed to hold on to the ball and run the clock. It was very lucky Nebraska didn't recover the fumble, because it was at UCLA's 38-yard line and a Nebraska touchdown would have made it 38-28 with about 7 minutes left and it could have potentially turned the momentum.
Defensive Line: B+
UCLA's defensive line generally did a nice job against Nebraska's decent offensive line, holding the Cornhuskers to just 3 yards per carry on the day. Keenan Graham, two weeks removed from a big sack against Nevada to set up the blocked punt for touchdown, had another momentum-shifting sack during this game, bringing Taylor Martinez down on third down with UCLA down by four. The play was a big one for Graham, beating an interior lineman one on one with great technique. We've always been high on his potential, and it's nice to see him finally breaking out in his senior season.
Seali'i Epenesa also had a big sack for the Bruins, and held up the middle of the line very well. Epenesa's ability to hold up on the interior kept Nebraska's from breaking off those consistent six to seven yard gains that can be deadly. Ellis McCarthy, playing primarily defensive end, had one of his better games. He looked shockingly quick on the near-sack that was ruled dead because of a receiver's false start. He also made a few bear hug tackles that kept Nebraska's running backs from turning good gains into really long ones.
The freshmen defensive linemen didn't have quite as big of an impact in this game as they did against Nevada, but Eddie Vanderdoes still found a way to contribute, putting a couple of really big hits on Martinez. Cassius Marsh looked good as well.
Now, that's what we've been talking about all offseason, when we've been saying how good UCLA's linebackers could be this year. Between Myles Jack, Anthony Barr, Jordan Zumwalt, and Eric Kendricks, UCLA has its most athletic linebacking corps in recent memory. Jack, for the second straight game, was a force in all facets of the game, playing a variety of roles for the defense as just a true freshman. His ability to pursue to the sideline gives UCLA a tremendous safety net against running quarterbacks like Martinez. Note, as well, that it took him all of one game to supplant Aaron Wallace as the starter on the left side.
Barr, after looking a little lackluster against Nevada, was much more engaged against Nebraska, especially after the lull that was the first quarter. He made a couple of saving tackles near the sideline on swing passes, but his main contributions were the big plays to force fumbles, none bigger than his hit on the running back that led to the fumble recovery at the beginning of the fourth quarter. IF he doesn't force the fumble, Nebraska likely scores on that drive, and the Bruins are left having to continue the offensive barrage throughout the fourth. He also had a near interception on a swing pass from Martinez, where the ball traveled barely two inches above his outstretched hands. Barr made plays like that during fall camp last year, so we'll make the prediction now: at some point this year, he's going to have a pick-six on a swing pass.
Zumwalt was all over the place, and as some posters have opined, he looks the part of a potential all Pac-12 performer. Eric Kendricks didn't impact the game a great deal, which you might attribute to a sore ankle that was bothering him prior to the start of the season.
The ability of UCLA's linebackers to range sideline to sideline could force offenses into more of a downhill approach, something that clearly didn't work for Nebraska's running game on Saturday. As Jack gets more comfortable, Kendricks gets healthier, and Barr settles into the season, you can see this unit truly becoming dominant.
Defensive Backs: B-
All in all, this wasn't a terrible performance for the secondary. Fabian Moreau only had one really rough play, where Kenny Bell took a short pass and put a simple juke on Moreau that allowed him to get a first down. Other than that, Moreau actually did a more than credible job. On the touchdown pass to Bell, Moreau actually had good coverage, but Martinez arm-punted the ball perfectly into Bell's hands.
Brandon Sermons bit inside on the first touchdown pass for Martinez, but UCLA blitzed seven players, which left Sermons on an island where he had to guess one way or the other. We would have liked him to be playing more up on the receiver, but that may or may not be on him.
The only other big negative play was Anthony Jefferson's pass interference, which was a fairly obvious interference. Jefferson more than made up for it, though, by falling on the fumble late in the game.
Randall Goforth had one of the bigger defensive plays of the game, when he tackled the big offensive lineman on the fake punt when Nebraska was down 10. Goforth has played well through the first two games after having an up and down season last year.
Again, as against Nevada, UCLA wasn't tested much, because Martinez really can't throw too well. There were a few times where he had an open receiver and simply missed him. As with the offensive line, the jury is probably still a bit out until they have a game where they get tested by a more complex scheme.
Defensive scheme, play calling, and game plan: B+
As Barr and Mora noted after the game, UCLA didn't have many adjustments to make after the first half, because the defense really wasn't the problem. Hundley and UCLA's special teams gifted Nebraska with two short fields for two of their touchdown drives. The defense gave up one long drive to Martinez and the Cornhuskers, but Nebraska was helped by a very questionable pass interference call on Myles Jack, and the fumble forced by Zumwalt landing perfectly in a Cornhuskers' hands. In fact, every bounce seemingly went Nebraska's way, from the 2nd and 30 fumble bouncing perfectly into Martinez's hands as he was falling down to the other two fumbles (prior to that decisive fourth quarter recovery) bouncing to the Huskers. With all of that going against them, the Bruins still managed to hold Nebraska to 331 total yards. More to the point, in the second half, UCLA shut out Nebraska, which has a potent offense.
There were, though, a few times where the defense seemed a bit confused, including one play where it seemed like they'd forgotten to cover the left wideout, and you could see Moreau racing up just as the play was starting. We can only imagine that there are still a few kinks to be worked out in terms of substitutions, as Mora alluded to after Nevada.
We'll mention it here: having only three penalties in the game, especially a game officiated by Pac-12 refs, was one of the more encouraging signs from the game. When you factor in that Jack's PI call was highly questionable, it looks even better. If UCLA can simply avoid stupid personal foul penalties, and maybe cut the procedure penalties in half, the Bruins should be in good shape in that department this year.
Special Teams: D+
Every silver lining has a dark cloud to provide it some measure of context. UCLA's special teams were a bit of a mess on Saturday. Punter Sean Covington muffed a snap, which led to UCLA's turning the ball over on its own 26. Ka'imi Fairbairn missed two kicks, and looked like he was going to miss a third before the wind snapped it back. Kickoff coverage wasn't great, at one point allowing Nebraska a decent return after the returner muffed the ball near the one yard line.
That said, there were some bright spots. Evans continues to be surprisingly good as a punt returner, showing off good hands while also displaying enough shake to get good gains. With the quality of UCLA's offense, as we've said before, all UCLA really needs is someone who can catch the ball cleanly. If Evans can do that while also providing positive yardage, all the better.
Kickoffs were once again a joint effort, and it looks like Covington has that rare ability to kick field goals from the opposite end of the field.