UCLA overcomes adversity to down Utah in tough road victory
SALT LAKE CITY -- As UCLA coach Jim Mora's gratitude for a victory wrestled with his annoyance at the fact that his team had committed 13 penalties for 100 yards, Bruins associate athletic director Rip Scherer offered him a drop of wisdom. "Not every Rembrandt," the former coach at Memphis and James Madison said, "is a masterpiece."
In the wee hours of Friday morning, after what Mora called "the longest game I've ever been a part of," he couldn't help but agree. Yes, UCLA had nearly given away the game. Yes, quarterback Brett Hundley threw a devastating pick-six. Yes, the Bruins might have considered changing the alma mater to Yakety Sax after a few offensive plays. But guess what? UCLA beat Utah, 34-27. The Bruins won a Pac-12 game on the road on a Thursday night, when road favorites typically struggle. They played a pair of true freshmen at right guard and right tackle most of the night. They played nine true freshmen on defense. And they won a game young teams don't usually win.
To reach the level that UCLA wants to reach, the Bruins must win games like this one. They must overcome sloppiness and missed opportunities and occasional boneheadedness in order to dispatch a fired-up, quality opponent.
They must take a cue from UCLA safety Randall Goforth, who let a second-quarter pass from Utes quarterback Travis Wilson sail between his palms and into the hands of receiver Sean Fitzgerald for a six-yard touchdown. "Man, it ate at me," Goforth said. But he put the play behind him, and his coverage the rest of the night helped the Bruins swipe six interceptions. (Defensive coordinator Lou Spanos has a multi-station "Turnover Rodeo" at UCLA's practices. If creating turnovers is a rodeo, then UCLA won a belt buckle the size of a manhole cover Thursday.)
The Bruins must also take a cue from Hundley, who got caught from behind by a Utah pass rusher early in the fourth quarter and decided -- rather than to take the sack -- to make a desperation heave. The ball nestled in the hands of Utes cornerback Keith McGill, who walked into the end zone and allowed Utah to tie the score at 24. Hundley moved UCLA 48 yards to set up a field goal on the Bruins' ensuing possession. Then, while Utes' offense was on the field for a possession that ended in one of UCLA safety Anthony Jefferson's two interceptions, Hundley went to coordinator Noel Mazzone with an idea.
Utah had torn apart the Bruins' offense for most of the second half with overload blitzes that brought more rushers than UCLA had blockers on a particular side. How good were Utes coach Kyle Whittingham's pressure packages? "His blitz schemes were excellent," Mora said. "I can't wait to look at the film and see if I can't poach a few of them." But Hundley noticed one tendency in particular. When the Bruins had a single receiver to the boundary (short) side of the field, Utah sent a cornerback at Hundley. When UCLA had two receivers on each side of the field, the Utes dropped that corner into man coverage. Their other blitzers left the middle of the field unguarded -- which made Utah susceptible to a quarterback draw. If the corner was coming, he could track down Hundley fairly easily on a draw. If the corner got stuck covering a receiver, Hundley could run all day. At least that's what Hundley envisioned when he presented the idea to Mazzone. So, on third-and-6 from the Utes' 36-yard line, Mazzone indulged his quarterback. The tailback split wide, giving the Bruins two receivers on each side. Sure enough, the corner dropped into man coverage. The middle of the field opened, and Hundley raced for a 36-yard touchdown that turned out to be a critical cushion after Utah kicked a late field goal and recovered an onside kick. "I'm very proud of our defense in the second half," Whittingham said. "They were dominant in the second half -- except for the QB draw."
Had Hundley -- who threw for a touchdown, ran for a touchdown and caught a touchdown pass -- gone into a shell after the pick-six, he might never have had the idea for the draw. But he shook it off, just as the rest of his teammates shook off their mistakes to grind out a win. "Everyone's going to have a bad play. They might have a bad series. Heck, they might have a bad game," Mora said. "But the ones that are really special, they find a way to come back. It's just in them. Brett's demonstrating that."
With games at Stanford and Oregon coming later this month, UCLA will have to get back to work and fix some of their issues. They can make mistakes and beat a pretty good Utah team, but the Cardinal and the Ducks won't be so forgiving. Bruins right tackle Torian White broke his ankle Thursday and will be out for a significant stretch. White's injury left freshmen Alex Redmond and Caleb Benenoch manning the right side of the line. Mora said that center Jake Brendel had to work extra to help the youngsters diagnose defensive fronts. This was especially difficult for Brendel, who then had to put his head down because of UCLA's silent snap count and fire out of his stance quickly because the Utes placed a nose tackle directly over him on most plays. The result? Many of his snaps came out low and to the left, forcing Hundley to work to catch the snap and then to get himself back into position to throw. Stanford and its ferocious pass rush will feast if the Bruins don't address that particular problem.
UCLA knows that it has several issues that need to be attended to. "We picked it up and did what we needed to do," Hundley said, "but we can be a lot better." Still, it's a lot more fun fixing problems while still undefeated. "There are so many lessons to be learned," Mora said. "It's always better when you can learn those lessons after a win."