Friday September 26th, 2014

TEMPE, Ariz. -- With four touchdowns on plays of 80 yards or more and a sizzling performance by star quarterback Brett Hundley, UCLA rolled Arizona State, 62-27, on Thursday night. The victory gives the Bruins the early edge in the Pac-12 South race.

Here are three things we learned Thursday night:

1. NFL eyes are on Brett Hundley

More than 20 NFL scouts arrived at Sun Devil Stadium primarily to evaluate Hundley on a field full of potential pro talent. It was a fascinating environment to scout the redshirt junior. He’s been hampered by an injury to his left (non-throwing) elbow and wore a bulky black protective brace, but went from game-time decision to the most dynamic player on the field, even leaping over Arizona State linebacker Viliami Moeakiola at one point. Hundley finished the game 18-for-23 passing with four touchdowns and no interceptions, turning a taut game in the first half into a laugher by the fourth quarter. UCLA’s star QB also ran the ball eight times for 72 yards and another touchdown, finishing with the kind of night that can generate Heisman buzz.

Three NFL general managers were there in person – San Francisco’s Trent Baalke, San Diego’s Tom Telesco and St. Louis’ Les Snead. (The Chargers and Rams could well be in the quarterback market). A handful of teams sent two front office types, including Tampa Bay, Miami, the Rams, Ravens and the Jets. Hundley picked a good night to have a great night. From chatting with a few scouts, accuracy will be Hundley’s issue, as he skipped a few balls to open receivers. He also doesn’t have a huge arm, which means he likely doesn’t project as a franchise NFL guy. But it’s hard to nitpick him too much after tonight.

2. Todd Graham’s questionable timeout use burned Arizona State

A flurry of poor coaching decisions turned a plucky early ASU performance into a disastrous finish to the first half. Sun Devil coach Todd Graham, as he’s known to do, burned all three Sun Devil time outs on defense long before the final drive. Graham’s decision haunted the Sun Devils late in the first half when they took over the ball with 2:13 remaining, robbing them of a chance to take the lead. With UCLA leading 20-17, Arizona State rushed down the field and imploded.

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On first-and-10 from the UCLA 15, ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell called a quarterback draw play with the slow-footed Mike Bercovici that was quickly swallowed up by the UCLA defensive line. It was a baffling choice by Norvell, who had shined until that moment with creative play calling and getting Bercovici comfortable in his first career start. He finished 42-of-68 for 288 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions.

The run call forced ASU to spike the ball with 19 seconds left, and instead of kicking a field goal to tie the game on third down, ASU took a shot and that backfired spectacularly. UCLA’s Ishmael Adams intercepted the ball -- the type of miscommunication with a receiver that happens in first starts -- and returned it 95 yards for a touchdown. The energy sapped out of the Sun Devil Stadium, and the momentum never swung back to ASU. UCLA outscored ASU 42-10 from that point.

3. Let’s not consider UCLA a conference favorite … yet

So what do we make of UCLA (4-0) after this win? It’s still hard to say. If Hundley is healthy, the Bruins can contend for a Pac-12 title. But do they look like a team that can compete for the College Football Playoff? Not yet.

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Ultimately, for UCLA to win it needs Hundley to run. And every time the Bruins call his number for a draw or zone read, they risk further injury to Hundley’s left elbow. The scariest moment of the night for UCLA came in the third quarter when ASU’s Damarious Randall hit Hundley late out of bounds squarely on his left elbow. The play drew a 15-yard penalty, but it could have effectively sabotaged UCLA’s season. Hundley was fine, but every rush is a high-stakes risk-reward proposition. (It was foolish for UCLA to be running Hundley with 4:29 remaining, as he scored a touchdown to make the score 62-27. If the Bruins were looking for style points, the reality of risking his health at that point was absurd.)

UCLA still has potentially crippling issues on the offensive line, and its defense tackled at times on Thursday night as if the Sun Devils were greased with Crisco. As impressive as the final score looks, UCLA is still a ways away from being one of the four best teams in the country.

Still, the Bruins deserve credit for playing Virginia on the road, Texas in a hardly neutral site game at JerryWorld and now obliterating their primary competition in the Pac-12 South.

UCLA looks very good, but a long way from elite. The good news for the Bruins is that they host Utah and Oregon the next two weeks. Victories in those games would legitimize the Bruins as a contender.

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