TEMPE, Ariz. -- There are few players in the country who mean more to their teams than Brett Hundley does to UCLA. With him at quarterback, the Bruins are the favorites to win the Pac-12 South and a part of the College Football Playoff conversation. Without him, they’re a middling Pac-12 team with no identity, a porous defense and little national relevancy.
So, as the clock neared midnight on Thursday, in the dank hallway outside the UCLA locker room, Hundley’s unique fashion statement summed up the coaching conundrum that loomed over the No. 11 Bruins’ game at No. 15 Arizona State. A large bag of ice wrapped around Hundley’s injured left elbow, making it impossible for him to put his arm through his sleeve. That left his black polo shirt bunched up over his shoulder, and Hundley’s chest and abs exposed to the cameras, a fitting image in the aftermath UCLA’s 62-27 evisceration of the Sun Devils.
That left elbow injury knocked Hundley out of UCLA’s 20-17 win over Texas on Sept. 13, and he wore a brace he called “bionic” in his first game back. With UCLA’s coaches facing a decision -- run Hundley and expose him to further injury, or play it conservative and keep him in the pocket -- they decided to let him play in the style he always has. Hundley ran with abandon for 72 yards on eight carries, even hurdling an Arizona State linebacker on one play. He sparkled all night, going 18-of-23 for 355 yards with four touchdowns. He did make one concession to exposing himself to more risk. “I have to stop hurdling people,” Hundley said. “I’m playing football. I can’t not do what I like doing and how I like playing.”
Bruins coaches gambled with their star quarterback on Thursday, and they won. With Hundley injured and vulnerable, the team could have ditched the designed runs from the game plan. Instead, it thrust him into the breach, a choice that unintentionally illuminated just how pedestrian UCLA is on offense without at least the threat of Hundley running. Consider the move as bold in victory as it would have appeared reckless if he ended up hurt. Hundley acknowledged the tricky spot in which his injury put the Bruins’ staff. “It paid off man,” Hundley said of their choice. “You have to say ‘F it.’”
No play epitomized UCLA’s mentality better than when Hundley scored on a one-yard quarterback sneak with 4:29 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Bruins already leading 55-27. Hundley looked to the sideline to ask coach Jim Mora for a sign of permission to run the play. Despite having an opportunity to score with less risk, Mora opted to give Hundley a thumbs up. Hundley dove into the end zone for his lone rushing touchdown. “I didn’t worry about it,” Mora said. “I didn’t worry about Brett.”
Hundley wore a compression sleeve and padding on his elbow in addition to the bulky black brace, which he said disrupted his weight distribution and may have contributed to missing a few throws, though he had only five incompletions. He wouldn’t reveal the exact nature of his injury -- he nearly acknowledged it was a sprain before saying he didn’t know -- but noted he shouldn’t have to wear the brace much more than another week. Last week, when it became apparent Hundley would play, he insisted coaches not flip through the playbook with kid’s gloves. “I’m not limiting myself,” he said. “I think a lot of people thought I was going to come out and be one-dimensional. Sometimes you have to play through pain.”
No one noticed that more than the droves of NFL personnel who flocked to Sun Devil Stadium on Thursday night. More than 20 teams were represented, and three general managers showed up: 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. So could the Buccaneers, Dolphins and Jets -- all of whom had two personnel staffers in Tempe.
The NFL buzz in the press box was that Hundley isn’t quite first-round material, but a team could snag him late in the first round for his athleticism and playmaking ability. When Hundley found out that so many NFL teams were spying from above, a huge smile cracked his face. “Really?” he said. “That’s a great game to come to.”
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Hundley’s night didn’t come without a scare, as he took a hit directly on his injured elbow in the third quarter. Arizona State cornerback Damarious Randall hit Hundley late, out of bounds and squarely on his brace. Randall was flagged, but UCLA got away with the gamble. “Obviously it’s a hard situation,” Hundley said. “You have to play through pain. It’s football.”
Right now, few teams in the country have cobbled together a better cluster of wins than UCLA. They won at Virginia, beat Texas and embarrassed the defending Pac-12 South champions on their home field. UCLA also squeaked by Memphis -- its only home victory -- to leave it at 4-0 as the throes of Pac-12 play begin.
It’s still a pinch early to thrust the Bruins into the middle of the playoff race, especially after allowing 626 yards against the Sun Devils. But they can easily get there by beating Utah and Oregon at the Rose Bowl in the next two weeks.
The Bruins have earned their likely jump back into the top 10 after slipping because of shaky performances in their opening three wins. Credit for that goes to a plucky quarterback and intrepid coaching staff, both of whom faced a tough decision, took the risky option and ran with it.