PASADENA, Calif. — When Brett Hundley tried to kneel down, milking the final seconds off the clock, he stumbled backward and fell on his behind. Then he did it again. These pratfalls were eminently more graceful than another planned fall, when he wrenched his ankle trying to execute a baseball slide.
“I probably need to get the slip-and-slide out during practice,” Hundley said.
So, let it be said, that Hundley does have some room for improvement. But it’s also clear that the UCLA Bruins, after their 36-30 win over 16th-ranked Nebraska, have found their ticket out of a decade of mediocrity with Hundley, an athletic, accurate, effervescent and poised-beyond-his-years redshirt freshman quarterback.
If Hundley teased with possibilities last week by running 72 yards for a touchdown against Rice on his first college snap, he allowed the Bruins to dream bigger Saturday under new coach Jim Mora. The freshman directed an offense that rolled up 653 yards, leaving Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, who learned defense under Pete Carroll, Bob Stoops and Nick Saban, “embarrassed” by his team’s performance.
Hundley passed for 305 yards and four touchdowns, rushed for 53 more, and unlike Nebraska junior quarterback Taylor Martinez looked like he’d been at the Rose Bowl many, many times before.
“There’s no ceiling for Brett’s talent, where he can take us,” said Joseph Fauria, a fifth-year senior tight end who grabbed two touchdowns simply because his quarterback trusted him to use his 6-foot-8 frame to make a play. “The program’s in his hands right now and he’s doing very well with it.”
It’s been a while since the Bruins could put the ball in anyone’s hands who didn’t stumble, fumble or toss it to the other team.
For more than a decade, UCLA has been irrelevant nationally and something of a punch line locally — whether it was bungled coaching hires or pie-in-the-face ad campaigns (“The Monopoly on Football in L.A. is Over”). The ultimate embarrassment came last December when the Bruins replaced ineligible USC in the conference’s inaugural title game, replete with a 6-6 record, a 50-0 loss to the Trojans and their fired coach Rick Neuheisel.
The root of this deficit lay at quarterback, which has a deep and storied history at the school, from Bob Waterfield and Gary Beban to Troy Aikman and Tommy Maddox. In the mid-’80s, the Bruins stockpiled so many QBs that a senior took over four years in a row — and if they weren’t good enough to get to the NFL like Steve Bono, they were, like Neuheisel, good enough to win a Rose Bowl.
But since Cade McNown, who carried them to a 20-game winning streak and nearly a national title in 1998, the only UCLA links to the NFL can be claimed by quarterbacks who left — J.P. Losman, who transferred to Tulane, and Matt Moore, who went to Oregon State. And the Bruins’ depth has been such that they’ve had to turn to walk-ons.
If there has been any need to remind UCLA fans of the difference a quarterback might make, they could always look across town, where it can be argued that the brilliance of Carroll and Lane Kiffin is due in large part to having Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez, John David Booty and now Matt Barkley. The embarrassment of riches has been such that a quarterback who never started for the Trojans, Matt Cassel, is a starter in the NFL.
So, with Hundley directing the UCLA offense up and down the field, making sound decisions in offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone’s read-and-react offense, it’s enough to make even measured minds smile at the possibilities.
“It’s exciting for UCLA football,” said Carl Peterson, the retired former Chiefs general manager and Bruins alum. “When I talked to Jim at the kickoff barbeque last month, he told me he was going to start a freshman and I was like, ‘Whoa, you sure?’ It’s still early — he’s just played two games — but you can see the talent.”
Peterson, who praised Hundley’s poise and accuracy, said that with Cam Newton’s emergence last year, and promising rookies Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck, the NFL’s lean toward athletic quarterbacks who can get out in space is only going to grow. Hundley, at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, is also of that mold.
He threw some artful deep balls, calmly hit receivers underneath and was also strong enough to shake off Nebraska linebacker Alonzo Whaley, turning a sure sack into a 6-yard gain that left Whaley crouched down and cursing at himself.
“He’s very calm out there,” Mora said. “He doesn’t get flustered. When he comes to the sideline, he has a clear understanding of what just happened, good or bad. He keeps his emotions in check.”
This is something that Mora did not take long to notice in Hundley, 19, when he was hired. It is why he tabbed Hundley shortly after the start of fall camp, ahead of seniors Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut.
“There were times in spring, in practice, what you do is try to create problems for your players that they have to figure out because that’s what happens out on the field and you can’t hold their hand out on the field,” Mora said. “Every time we put Brett in a situation where he made a poor decision in practice, he’d follow it up with a really good play. And so there were indications early on that this game was not too big for him, that he was going to be able to stay focused when things were going well or weren’t going well.”
Hundley was one of five redshirt freshman who found their way onto the field at the same time against Nebraska — three linemen and receiver Devin Lucien, who made an acrobatic 33-yard catch down the sideline.
Lucien, who roomed with Hundley last year, said the two would stay up until the early hours of the morning before games, talking about the impact they would have once they were able to play.
“We cried together about a moment like this, in our room, talking about how bad we wanted to be great,” Lucien said. “We knew we were going to make the most of this.”
As Lucien spoke, pausing to catch his breath on the field after the game, Hundley was not far away — geographically and otherwise.
Holding the game ball in his hand, he raised both his arms over his head and had something to tell the crowd as he ducked into the tunnel.
“This is just the beginning!” he yelled, and for the first time in a while at the Rose Bowl, it did not feel like an empty promise.