It was a frustrating experience for most of the game, at least until late in the third quarter when the dam broke, and the dam breaking was mostly the work and impact of Jordan Zumwalt. Perhaps the most decisive element of the game was Virginia Tech losing its starting quarterback, Logan Thomas, due to a vicious hit by the senior linebacker. He put a number of hits on the VT ball carriers throughout the game, and had a game-icing interception in the 4th quarter. He very well made some money Wednesday afternoon.
Easily the next-biggest impact on the game was Brett Hundley's ability to create with his legs. He had an almost-bizarre 168 yards rushing in the first half, including a spectacular 86-yard touchdown run.
The score looks like a blow-out and, well, it was – in the fourth quarter, when UCLA put up 28 points. But it's not a stretch to say that, if Virginia Tech had not lost Thomas and had contained Hundley in the first half like it did in the second, the Hokies would have been very competitive in this game. UCLA's defense allowed 145 yards rushing to the 110th rushing team in the nation. Take Hundley out of the UCLA rushing total and the Bruins ran for just 36 yards. The offense was anemic for three quarters without Hundley's legs. In the first half, Hundley also struggled throwing the ball, going 7 for 17 and just 76 yards.
Even with Hundley's scrambling ability and Zumwalt knocking out Thomas, the Hokies still were hanging around in the 3rd quarter. You have to give some credit to the Hokie offensive coordinator who was operating with a quarterback, Mark Leal, who had thrown just four passes on the season. They were moving the ball with some creative playcalling, and exploiting some of UCLA's over-pursuit and bad tackling.
UCLA just plainly, was getting out-played and out-coached.
But as has been the case a number of times this season, UCLA's playcalling changed. The play calls had not utilized tempo, and not given Hundley the short throws he's much more capable of making through the first half. It had tried here and there, but really hadn't put it together or found a good rhythm. It appeared that VT was employing mostly man coverage and blitzing, and UCLA's tactic against it was for Hundley to look deeper down the field. It's the standard tactic against the man-to-man of a cover zero, but it's just not UCLA's strong suit – with a quarterback who struggles to complete passes down the field and a young, inexperienced offensive line that's susceptible to a pass rush. UCLA was dictated in its tactic by VT – until the one drive at the end of the third quarter/beginning of the fourth. In that drive, the UCLA playcalling abandoned the conventional theory to counter cover zero, and went to what it did well – played with a faster tempo and gave Hundley short, timing routes that he could complete. Hundley went 5 for 5 on that drive and expertly moved the offense down the field – without having to scramble once. That touchdown, on a Paul Perkins run, put UCLA up 21-10. Even though that's conceivably just a difference of a touchdown, a two-point conversion and a field goal, it felt insurmountable for VT without Thomas.
The playcalling has had this kind of epiphanies this season, such as in the second half of the ASU game and in the USC game. It's a head-scratcher why it's not on the menu for all of UCLA's possessions, and why it was seemingly absent for a good portion of the season.
But let's not dwell on it. The playcalling was sufficient, and it did put the Bruins in their best chance to succeed offensively more often than not in this game.
The game was a perfect example of Hundley's strengths and weaknesses. His ability to scramble is truly uncanny. His inability to make reads and enough standard throws is also very evident. Luckily he still does suffer from the latter or his decision to go pro or not would be a very easy one.
A few other props have to be given out to:
- Myles Jack, for an all-round good game in the absence of veteran middle linebacker Eric Kendricks. Jack did get popped on a hit by Thomas, but made some very good plays, especially the well-timed interception off Leal that resulted in a pick-six and another dagger.
-- Steven Manfro who obviously is a different player when he's healthy. He had a couple of very impressive runs and swing passes.
- Receiver Devin Fuller for a colossal downfield block that sprung Hundley on his 86-yard TD run.
-- BRO, for predicting a 10-win season.
Of course, the last game of the season is always a little bittersweet. The seniors will, of course, be missed. Cassius Marsh is an admirable individual, one who has transformed himself both physically and mentally into a mature, impact player. There is then Anthony Barr, the guy that pretty much became the poster boy for the tough, disciplined image of Jim Mora's program. The caliber of plays Barr made in a Bruin uniform will be remembered among some of the best in UCLA football history. The hit on Matt Barkley in the 2012 UCLA-USC game will be one of those beautiful images of memory that fans cherish. Xavier Su'a-Filo, who will very likely put his name in the NFL Draft, was such a key to UCLA's new resurgence, holding together a patchwork offensive line the last two years – when he loyally returned to Westwood after his two-year Mormon Mission, taking a chance on a coach and a staff he didn't know. There are the seniors like Darius Bell, Keenan Graham and Malcolm Jones, who all found new life and purpose in Mora's program.
There's Shaquelle Evans, who has meant so much to Mora's program, too (and who also had a great block on Hundley's 86-yard run). The image of him on the sideline after he fumbled the punt, and the knowledge that it was his last game in a Bruin uniform and he just couldn't end it on that note. Then, the poignancy of that last catch, his last as a Bruin, being a touchdown.
The there's Jim Mora. We could obviously laundry-list everything he's done for the program, but it hit me how it manifested most in regard to the Sun Bowl. He made UCLA fans expect to win this game, and win 10 games this season. It's amazing how far and how different our perspective on the program has come in just two seasons under Mora. Bruin fans were completely expecting to win this game and secure a 10-win season, something that was nearly-inconceivable just 24 months ago. The world and existence has changed for Bruin fans, and Mora is the world-changer.
In the last 15 years there has never been a better time to be a UCLA football fan.