CHARLOTTESVILLE — The baggage from a preseason filled with hype could be seen in the meek faces and hushed voices outside the visitor’s locker room at Virginia’s Scott Stadium on Saturday, all hoping to board a charter flight back to the West Coast as soon as possible.
There were no smiles when UCLA Coach Jim Mora waited by the doorway and watched his players file in after escaping with a 28-20 win over the Cavaliers to open the 2014 season. Not when the seventh-ranked Bruins had garnered national championship buzz only to watch Brett Hundley, their Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback, run for his life behind a leaky offensive line in an underwhelming showing against an opponent that finished 2-10 a year ago.
“You would have thought we lost,” said Mora, who felt compelled to remind reporters, “Everyone expects you to blow everyone out. It’s just not like that.”
But in the midst of the hand wringing that comes with college football’s spotlight, Mora also could acknowledge the good it had done for his star signal caller. Months of anticipation, which accompanied Hundley’s unexpected return to school, had hardened him.
“I never felt like Brett wasn’t comfortable,” Mora said Saturday. “Just his demeanor on the sideline today was so much different than in any other game that we’ve struggled offensively. . . . It just didn’t feel right. And today he was a different guy. That, to me, is a real positive.
“It’s not necessarily going to show up in the stats, and people are going to be critical of things, but when you’re standing there next to him or watching him coming on and off the field, you get a sense of where he is.”
Hundley has become the cornerstone of UCLA’s quicker than expected return to prominence under Mora, who is beginning his third year at the Westwood campus following 25 years coaching in the NFL, including stints as the head coach with the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks.
The Bruins are a Pacific-12 favorite on the heels of just their second 10-win season since 1998. After 15 years of mostly being relegated to middling bowls, they are no longer playing second fiddle to crosstown rival USC. And few deny the intrigue surrounding the program is in large part because of Hundley, a redshirt junior who could have been the top quarterback selected had he chosen to declare for the 2014 NFL draft.
“I would have to say it’s the single most important factor,” Mora said.
The 6-foot-3, 227-pound Chandler, Ariz., native arrived in 2011 as a heralded recruit, and former coach Rick Neuheisel made a controversial decision to redshirt Hundley. It ultimately may have cost Neuheisel his job after UCLA went 6-8.
But Hundley’s dual-threat capabilities quickly meshed with Mora and new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. His first play in 2012 was a 72-yard touchdown run. In his second start, he threw for 305 yards and four touchdowns when the Bruins upset No. 16 Nebraska. He set school records by amassing more than 4,000 total yards and led the Pac-12 in completion percentage in 2012, drawing comparisons to his childhood idol, Donovan McNabb.
But amidst the hoopla that followed Hundley’s unexpected return to college, UCLA’s coaches worry about losing track of the hard-nosed, fundamental brand of football Mora brought to Los Angeles in the first place nearly three years ago.
“Sometimes you lose sight of who you are because of expectations. We have to still realize who we are and what we do,” Mazzone said. “It’s kind of a little bit of a, ‘Hey guys, you don’t just roll the ball out there because you’ve got some good cat back there at quarterback and we’re going to score points because of him.’ It takes 10 other guys.”
This season, UCLA would like to use Hundley less as a running threat to prevent injury. He worked this offseason on developing as a pocket passer, which is why his eyes lit up when he was asked about the end of Saturday’s game.
Hundley, who had been sacked five times by a swarming Virginia defense, faced third and eight late in the fourth quarter with a chance to run out the clock. With linebacker Daquan Romero and defensive end Eli Harold bearing in from either side, Hundley took the hits while firing a dart to wide receiver Jordan Payton on a comeback route near the sideline that turned into a 35-yard gain to ice the game away.
“I think that’s where the maturity part comes in,” Hundley said. “Last year, I may have started running more.”
A smile then emerged briefly when he was asked whether there had been more trash talk directed his way after a preseason spent in the headlines. For a moment, Hundley considered revealing the specifics. But his mind wouldn’t drift from the team’s disappointing 2014 debut.
“I heard some more smack talk, but it’s all fun and games,” he said. “I’m glad we got the victory today, but we have to be better on the offensive side.”