UCLA Football: Comeback Win Proves Bruins Are Real Contenders for Pac-12 Title
UCLA's emotional win over Nebraska in Lincoln last weekend made one thing clear: The Bruins are for real.
Jim Mora's team was down 21-3 late in the first half. Nebraska's crowd at Memorial Stadium was absolutely rocking. Brett Hundley looked rattled, and the squad as a whole looked extremely tight.
Of course, no one blamed the team.
The sudden passing of wide receiver Nick Pasquale immensely affected the squad. Mora closed off practice to the media last week in order for the team to cope with the death. Both the team and Mora were supremely emotional about the ordeal.
In an extremely classy move, Nebraska paid tribute to the memory of Pasquale. Blue and gold balloons were released by the Nebraska student section after a moment of silence. The Cornhuskers also sported helmet decals with Pasquale's No. 36.
Bo Pelini's bunch came into the game firing on all cylinders. Exacting revenge was surely a huge point of emphasis for the Cornhuskers. Taylor Martinez threw three touchdowns in the first half, including two to Quincy Enunwa. Defensively, Nebraska was incredibly active and enthused. UCLA did not look like the team that had beaten Nevada 58-20 in the season opener.
After a late first-half touchdown, the Bruins trailed at halftime by a score of 21-10.
At halftime, the Bruins simply exhaled.
The emotions from the week were immense in nature. Having to play a football game less than a week after the passing of a teammate is a very difficult challenge. Playing that contest on the road in one of the most hostile environments in the country didn't make things any easier.
However, Mora's bunch came together when it mattered.
UCLA scored four touchdowns on its first four possessions of the second half. In total, the Bruins scored 38 unanswered points to win the game 41-21.
It was startling to see the Bruins perform at such a high level. After a ghastly first half, it was as if a completely new football team took the field in the second stanza.
Aside from a football standpoint, the team showed immense character. It was able to persevere in the face of harsh adversity from a mental, emotional and physical capacity.
And it all starts with Mora.
The leader of UCLA's football program is a leader in every sense of the word. The way he's taken a soft bunch and transformed it into a physical, energetic entity has been stunning. The term "culture change" is thrown around rather frequently. If this contest was any indication, Mora has completely brought about the said change in culture.
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Mora's development of men and his unabated love for his players has been noted. Mora was interviewed shortly after the end of the Nebraska game. As his eyes welled with tears, he looked into the camera and told the parents of Pasquale, "We did it for your son, we did it for your son."
Emotion poured out after the game. Quarterback Brett Hundley flashed this towel, showing the love that he had for his fallen teammate.
Now, what does all of this mean?
It's obvious that UCLA is a very talented football team. It should be regarded as the favorite in the Pac-12 South Division. Not many programs across the nation would be capable of scoring 38 unanswered points on the road against a talented opponent.
Hundley settled down after a rough start. He fumbled on the first play of the game. Later in the first quarter, he threw an ill-advised pass that was intercepted.
Once the game progressed, he settled down and pitched a solid game. He went 16-of-24 for 294 yards and three touchdowns. Impressively, Hundley completed passes to nine different receivers. He also managed to rush for 61 yards on 19 carries.
UCLA has a litany of skill players who all made impacts on the game. Wide receiver Shaq Evans had 97 yards receiving and a touchdown. He's proven that he is without a doubt Hundley's top target.
A rushing attack led by Jordon James, Paul Perkins, Steven Manfro and Malcolm Jones combined for 210 yards. James and Perkins in particular looked quick and dangerous.
On defense is where the Bruins were most impressive. UCLA held Nebraska to 331 yards on the day. Quarterback Taylor Martinez rushed for minus-13 yards. Yes, minus-13 yards on 10 carries.
Defensive end Keenan Graham sacked Martinez twice. Eddie Vanderdoes, Seali'i Epenesa and Ellis McCarthy constantly pressured Martinez in the second half. The pressure truly disrupted the rhythm that Nebraska's signal-caller had in the first half.
At linebacker, Anthony Barr, Jordan Zumwalt and Myles Jack all stood out immensely. Zumwalt's energy was fantastic throughout the afternoon. Much like the season opener, Jack was flying all around the field. He usurped Aaron Wallace's starting job after one week, and there's no question why it happened. Jack's got the potential to be a special player in the future.
Barr was a complete monster against Nebraska. He totaled 11 tackles on the day, including two for a loss. Barr also forced three fumbles on the day.
Unsurprisingly, he was recognized nationally for his performance. The outside 'backer was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week, the Walter Camp Foundation Defensive Player of the Week, CBS Sportsline Defensive Player of the Week and the Lott Impact Player of the Week.
This game truly illustrated how athletic UCLA is across the board. It also demonstrated clearly how well the staff can make adjustments at halftime. Nebraska did not score a point in the second half and looked utterly clueless.
Noel Mazzone's offense has been performing at a high clip throughout the season. The team is fifth nationally in total offense. Pac-12 defenses will have a tough time dealing with UCLA's explosive and diverse offensive scheme.
Defensively, there's lots of depth in the front seven. The secondary is admittedly still a question mark. However, the linebacker corps is one of the best in the nation. The defensive line also rotates upwards of eight players in order to stay fresh.
There truly is reason for optimism in Westwood. This UCLA team may be the most talented Bruins squad since the 1998 Rose Bowl team. Depth and athleticism are obvious, and the camaraderie within the team is an aspect no one can underestimate.
A selfless nature has seemingly permeated throughout the team. Hundley conveyed this message to reporter Arash Markazi of ESPN Los Angeles:
There was so much emotion in [the Nebraska game]. I felt like we needed to get this win for him and we had to honor him. We showed that with out play. We realized this game is bigger than just us now. Everybody is always so worried about themselves, but this game is so much bigger and we understand that now.
The memory of Nick Pasquale will live on eternally for this football team. While no one on the squad has publicly verbalized the notion, this season could be used as motivation to play well for the fallen teammate.
A galvanizing effect could propel this team to great heights in 2013.
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