By Gary Montgomery
UCLA still in conference title contention thanks to Hundley and testy defense.
With the possibility of a Pac-12 South title still in play, a UCLA win over the Arizona Wildcats (6-2, 3-2) was the only acceptable outcome for the Bruins on Saturday night.
“If we don’t win this game, it’s over. There would be hardly any chance for us to win the Pac-12 title,” said an obviously relieved Jim Mora after the game.
The Wildcats entered Saturday’s game with only one blemish on their record, a 28-26 home loss to USC. Arizona’s offense was averaging 40 points per game and sporting a #14 national ranking and finally the Wildcats are the only team to beat conference leader Oregon, handing the Ducks a 31-24 loss in Eugene.
Saturday’s game may not have been “do or die” for the Bruins but ending the day with 3 conference loses would have certainly reduced any hopes of a Pac-12 title to wishful thinking.
Fortunately for that portion of the 80,246 that came to see UCLA win its Homecoming game, it was a good night. Brett Hundley knew the situation and was resigned to do whatever it took to get the win.
Hundley was 19-26 for 189-yards passing and joined Cade McNown as UCLA’s all time touchdown leaders when he hit a 70-yard bomb to a streaking Jordan Payton for a career TD number 68.
Hundley drove the Arizona defense crazy all night, tucking the ball 24 times for a season high total of 147-yards rushing and further adding to his UCLA legacy by giving him 3 games of over 100 yards rushing in his career.
The UCLA defense followed Hundley’s lead and although not a thing of beauty, they accomplished something that had not been done this season. The Bruins’ defense held Arizona quarterback, Anu Solomon, and his offense to a single touchdown.
Given the many problems that the Bruins’ defense has encountered this season closing out opponents, shutting down the Wildcats’ offense is the most surprising aspect of the game. “I think the guys are beginning to trust what we are doing. I think they are starting to believe in it,” said UCLA Defensive Coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. “In the past I think we have let-up at times (on opponents) and that has hurt us,” continued Ulbrich.
After the Wildcats took the opening kickoff and used 3 UCLA penalties to complete a 58-yard drive culminating with a 14-yard pass from Solomon to Cayleb Jones for a 7-0 lead. At that point, it didn’t look good for the Bruins’ Homecoming hopes. Who would have known that this would be the last time Arizona would score.
UCLA committed 11 penalties for 118-yards and could only muster 3 points in the first half on a 24-yard Ka’imi Fairburn field goal to trail 7-3 at the half.
The two teams traded drives most of the third quarter until UCLA managed to put together a 12 play 58-yard scoring drive capped off by a 2-yard run by Miles Jack to give the Bruins a 10-7 lead.
Again the Wildcats’ offense stalled and was forced to punt the ball back to UCLA. On the first play, Brett Hundley aired out a 70-yard bomb to Jordan Payton for a touchdown and a 17-7 lead.
Amazingly, this would be the final score. Arizona’s junior quarterback, Anu Solomon, had his worst game of the season.
“Well the offense was poor, poorly called, poorly executed, poorly played, and it started with the coaching staff. We played hard. Though our defense played well enough to win, for the most part Hundley hurt us running as much as throwing. We knew that was an issue,” said Arizona head coach Rich Rodriquez.
Former Eleanor Roosevelt High Star and team captain, Austin Hill took a hard hit early in the third quarter and had to leave the game for precautionary reasons, further crippling the Wildcats’ offensive unit.
“We don’t have a lot of depth, or as much as we want. We were down a few guys with injuries and penalties and stuff like that, so yeah we probably got a little tired too,” said Rodriquez.
It wasn’t pretty but UCLA’s win over Arizona keeps their hopes alive for a Pac-12 South title this season. The Bruins travel to Washington next week for a showdown with the Huskies, get a week off and then return to face USC and Stanford at home. It’s not complicated at this point; the Bruins need to run the table or start thinking about next season and life after Hundley.
Gary Montgomery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org