LINCOLN, Neb. — In the midst of chaos, while Brett Hundley's UCLA teammates celebrated having rallied for an impressive 41-21 victory over the Nebraska Cornhuskers and a record crowd of 91,471 trudged out of Memorial Stadium, the Bruins quarterback stood alone at midfield with one thought, one person, in mind.
In his hand he clutched a towel on which he had written "R.I.P. #36" in tribute to walk-on wide receiver Nick Pasquale, who died after being struck by a vehicle last Sunday morning in San Clemente. Later, Hundley said he will present the towel to Pasquale's family. They surely will see it was used more than once Saturday to stem a powerful tide of sorrow.
"It was a big, emotional game for us," Hundley said. "Tears were going."
Harnessing their emotions was among the many good things the Bruins did Saturday, the kinds of things good teams do and build on and turn into a habit.
They won on the road, in a hostile environment, against a team that had won 14 straight nonconference home games and 10 in a row at home overall. They didn't panic when Nebraska built a 21-3 lead midway through the second quarter and remained confident they could pick up the tempo, shut down the dangerous running of Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, and become the team they believe they can be.
A tough, resolute team, one that found the best in itself after the worst had happened.
"Our aim is to be special," Coach Jim Mora said. "Our aim is not to be average."
This performance was a persuasive step in that direction.
The Bruins stifled Nebraska in the second half, gaining strength and assurance with every possession. They made blocking adjustments, and they forced a quicker tempo. But Mora insisted the reasons behind their improved performance weren't complicated.
"There was no mystical, magical Xs and O's," he said. "It was all our players just doing what they're supposed to do and loving what they do, which is playing football."
If it wasn't mystical, it was a strong mind-set that enabled the Bruins to change an out-of-sorts first-half effort into a precise, productive second half. This team matured this week after Pasquale's tragic death and learned how to hold together when they could easily have fallen apart.
Mora said those outside the locker room and practice field could not have known how difficult this week was for players, some of whom had never encountered a tragedy like this. He closed the team's practices so players could grieve and work in private, and they grew stronger as the week and the game went on, always remembering the strength Pasquale had given them.
"That was the whole key, to play with controlled emotion," linebacker Anthony Barr said. "We knew it was going to be an emotional game and we had some heavy hearts. We felt for his family. He was part of our family, and it was important for us to go out and play not just for him but with his spirit."
They honored Pasquale in the best possible way, by responding with grace and grit to everything that was thrown at them.
"That's what great football teams do and we're trying to be a great football team," Barr said. "In order to do that we have to go into road games like this and come out with a win.
"It's fun to kind of have your back against the wall and have to count on the guy next to you and get through it, and we did it together."
This was the first of many challenges the Bruins will face. They should have an easy time next week at home against New Mexico State but will then begin a season-defining stretch. They'll play a Thursday night game at Utah, where they've lost their last two games (in 2007 and 2011) by a combined 75-12, before facing California at home and Stanford and Oregon on the road. Colorado should provide a respite, but they then play at Arizona, at home for Washington and Arizona State, and against USC at the Coliseum, where they haven't won since 1997.
All of which could be a road block or another hurdle to be overcome while evolving into the "special" team Mora envisions. Their victory Saturday was a good start toward a happy ending, but just that — a start.
"It's not good enough to do it just once," Mora said. "That's got to become our identity, that's got to become the team that we become, and we're working hard toward it."
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