If the Bruins are coming, as the billboards scattered about town suggest, then they are not coming alone.
In the UCLA football opener Saturday night at the sweltering Rose Bowl, this town’s most precocious college football team proved that its arrival into this promising season will be accompanied by plenty of adjectives.
Breathtaking is coming. Boisterous is coming. Brash is coming.
If Saturday was any indication, a whole bunch of jaw-dropping and eye-popping is coming, as the 21st-ranked Bruins spun Nevada dizzy in a 58-20 victory that even turned the heart of its perpetually cranky coach.
“There’s a lot of things we need to improve upon and correct. Being the pessimist that I am, I’ll hit those first,” said Jim Mora afterward, before pausing and reversing course. “Let’s hit the positives. Can we hit the positives first? Let’s hit the positives first.”
Why not hit the positives? His flying team hit everything else, the Bruins coming in waves and waves, turning a four-point halftime lead into a 38-point whomping that outsparkled even the postgame fireworks show.
The Bruins came from all directions, and fast, so fast that all six of their touchdown drives required less than four minutes. They mounted such a quick and skilled attack that, at times, they almost looked like mighty Oregon minus daddy Phil Knight’s billion-dollar allowance.
“It’s a trip when you do all this work in the off-season, then you get a chance to come here and see how that work helped you,” said quarterback Brett Hundley. ‘“We’re going to do big things this year.”
Here came Hundley, sprinting through a defense’s heart, throwing bullets over a defense’s heads, pounding his fists into teammates’ shoulder pads and his name into the minds of Heisman Trophy voters. Hundley gained more than just 337 total yards with two rushing and two passing touchdowns. He has also clearly gained a sense of perspective and a feeling of comfort. He no longer seems to wander around the backfield. Now he owns it.
One minute, he was faking a handoff and tucking the ball, racing down the sidelines for a somersaulting touchdown. The next minute, he was finding Shaquelle Evans in the corner of the end zone for a five-yard laser touchdown strike. In one breath, he was barreling up the middle off weary defenders for a touchdown. In another breath, he was flipping a screen to Malcolm Jones and watching him sprint for another score.
“Isn’t he poised? It looked like the game had really slowed down for him,” Mora said of his protege. “He’s a really good quarterback.”
Here came running back Jordon James, the kid perfectly nicknamed “Joystick,” darting around like something out of a video game, making three guys miss at once, commanding the stage once held by Johnathan Franklin by being gone before you knew it.
James gained 155 yards, had one touchdown and about a dozen fakes that froze defenders. He led a rushing attack that gained 345 yards, with each of the four guys who carried the ball averaging at least six yards per touch.
“The line was blocking very well. It was very easy to make a cut,” said James, whose soft tone belies his flashy presence. “I was at the second level after making a cut.”
Here came a flying defense led by the huge Anthony Barr and quick Eric Kendricks, a bold unit typified by linebacker Jordan Zumwalt after he helped break up a pass play. He spun it between his legs like a basketball before handing it back to the official. The defense’s only problem, it seemed, was playing with an offense that gave them scant sideline rest.
“We’re over there chilling, we’re like, ‘Can we get some more time on the bench, get a little breather,” said Zumwalt with a grin. “And then, touchdowns.”
Here came the breaks, the game clinched on a third-quarter blocked punt by Kenny Orjioke that bounced perfectly into the hands of Phillip Ruhl, who then acted like Hundley. Yes, he dived into the end zone.
Oh, and near the end, here came a Neuheisel, backup quarterback Jerry — yeah, Rick’s son — looking great with a 21-yard sideline pass to Logan Sweet to set up another Bruins touchdown. Then Neuheisel held for the extra point. It was a night tinged with that sort of sweetness and surprise.
“When you can win a game like this, and you can win convincingly … that’s a good sign for us,” said Mora, who set the toughness tone by wearing long sleeves despite the typical Pasadena August humidity.
About the only important thing that didn’t show up Saturday was a filled Rose Bowl and appropriate buzz. Although UCLA students are not back at school yet, that didn’t explain wide sections of empty seats and a late-filling parking lot where even prime tailgate spots were vacant. And if you’re thinking this victory will give the Bruins nationwide respect and greatly affect their ranking, think again. The game was only televised on the Pac-12 Network, which is still not available on DirecTV and therefore invisible to many sports fans.
Given UCLA’s football tradition, attention will be the last thing to come. Right now, the Bruins seem to resemble the nickname of the town that the University of Nevada calls home. They could be football’s Biggest Little Team in the World. They are a great show that gets lost in the shadow of that bigger circus down the road.
This year’s schedule, however, could finally give them some of the exposure they crave. In two weeks, they will play at Nebraska in a noon EDT game on ESPN. In consecutive weekends in October, they will play at Stanford and Oregon. The nation will eventually have a chance to see what Rose Bowl fans saw on Saturday. It will be interesting to see if the young team — only 19 active scholarship juniors and seniors on Saturday — can truly take the next step.
As first steps go, this was a doozy. Those billboards may be overly dramatic and easily ridiculed. But so far, they are right. The Bruins are coming.