PASADENA, Calif. “”mdash; “Don’t screw up. Don’t screw up. Don’t screw up “¦ phew,” said every UCLA fan before wiping beads of sweat off of his or her brow.
Since Drew Olson won 10 games in 2005 ““ UCLA’s highest win total this century ““ and took the Bruins to a bowl game that was more than a public relations front for the fight against world hunger, those have been the thoughts of Bruin fans every time a UCLA quarterback touched the ball in a meaningful situation.
Saturday at the Rose Bowl, the sentiments were different.
Statements along the lines of “Ooh, nice fake there by Hundley” or “Wow, nice throw under pressure” were much more common.
With UCLA redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley under center, there is a feeling of confidence instead of panic. Acting instead of hoping. Knowing instead of thinking.
On the first play of Saturday’s 21-14 win over Utah, Hundley ran the ball for a 1-yard gain. He came up gimpy, sending most Bruin fans into a cold sweat. They had seen this before with other quarterbacks who got off to promising starts to the season only to bow out with an injury. Since 2005, not one UCLA quarterback has made it through an entire season without missing a game because of an injury.
Play two, Hundley threw a pass out of bounds nowhere near the intended receiver and called his own timeout.
“It just felt weird at the moment so I was just sitting there like, ‘Ah, snap,’” Hundley said of his tweaked knee.
So was everyone else, but the language was a touch more colorful. After a couple of precautionary tests, Hundley re-entered the game. He said his knee “felt fine,” but against one of the best defensive fronts in the Pac-12 conference, no way were we going to see the scrambling machine that we saw rack up 121 combined rushing yards in the first two wins of the season.
Not only did Hundley defy the fate the UCLA-quarterback-injury gods had in store for him, he went on to win the game for the Bruins with his legs, another thing we haven’t seen from a quarterback around here in a while. With three starting receivers on the shelf because of injuries, the Utes locked down every playmaker the Bruins have. They just forgot about the quarterback.
Hundley took off running 15 times for 68 yards and a touchdown, averaging nearly 5 yards per carry.
“They did a good job at covering a lot of our receivers but when nothing’s there, I’m going to take off running and use the legs,” Hundley said.
On the opening drive of the third quarter ““ a 14-play, 66-yard marathon touchdown drive that helped UCLA put the game away ““ Hundley ran the ball four times, twice to convert on third down.
“He made a major step, in my mind, toward demonstrating his mobility as a quarterback,” coach Jim Mora said. “All of us who have been at practice have seen it a lot. Today, he tucked it and ran when he saw an opportunity. I think that’s going to make him more of a threat to defenses.”
When Hundley stepped on campus in January of last year, his mobility was what made him intriguing. Now that it’s clear he can throw and has competent offensive play callers in his corner, look out.
Perhaps that’s the most exciting thing about Hundley now: how high his ceiling is. The Bruins’ first touchdown Saturday came on a 12-yard zone-read run. Essentially, it’s on Hundley to make the right read based on the defense and he did it by faking the hand off fooling everyone in the stadium, including me.
Before I could turn my head to locate the ball, it was 7-0 UCLA. An out-of-town columnist who has been covering college football for 33 years turned to me and said, “This kid is going to be something special.”
Hundley’s journey won’t come without a few hiccups, like last week’s four-interception performance against Cal, but the thought that we might get to see him make plays at the Rose Bowl for three-and-a-half more seasons is exciting for everyone. And when was the last time you could say UCLA football is exciting?
Hundley’s done it again.
Were you at last year’s Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl? Email Sam Strong at email@example.com or tweet him at @SamStrong