It figured there would be games like this. Or, as UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley put it after Saturday’s loss to California, “The ball is not going to bounce your way every game.”
Hundley burst into his college career with three consecutive 300-yard passing games. But as UCLA prepares to play Utah on Saturday at the Rose Bowl, the redshirt freshman is coming off the most difficult game his life.
Against Cal, he threw for 253 yards and two touchdowns but also had four passes intercepted and fumbled twice, losing one.
The mistakes could largely be attributed to rookie growing pains, but they really did hurt. The loss bounced the Bruins from the national rankings and left them with a record of 4-2 overall, 1-2 in Pac-12 Conference play.
“There is no Chicken Little going on around here,” offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said. “We knew there were going to be bumps in the road.”
The coach added, “You can’t turn the ball over like that and expect to beat anybody.”
Hundley is the first freshman starter Mazzone has tutored since Auburn’s Jason Campbell in 2001. Campbell finished his first college season with 1,117 yards passing and four touchdowns. Three years later, he led the Tigers to a 13-0 record and was the MVP of the Southeastern Conference championship game.
Hundley is ahead of that curve. He has thrown for 1,723 yards and 13 touchdowns through six games. He had only three intercepted passes first five weeks this season. Then came Saturday.
“The reality of the situation is he is going have some tough plays, he’s going to have some tough quarters, he might even have some tough games,” Coach Jim Mora said. “You can’t become a great quarterback without going through some really difficult times.”
Mora admitted that Hundley “looked a little more like a freshman the other night.” But, he added, “You have to credit the California defense too.”
And look elsewhere, Mazzone said. The Bruins played three freshmen on the offensive line.
“You compound Brett’s youth with the fact there is not a lot of experience around him,” Mazzone said.
It’s Mazzone charge to challenge Hundley without breaking his confidence, a delicate two-step.
“You don’t want to take that guy who makes plays for you and have him be afraid to make plays for you,” Mazzone said. “But you want him to be smart enough to know when to take those chances.”
Mistakes come while learning to make those choices.
“It’s like having a little kid,” Mazzone said. “You can tell him not to touch the stove because it’s hot, but that may make him want to touch it.”
Hundley got burned against California.
The Bears chased Hundley, and battered him. He was sacked five times and the offense lurched along. Three of his interceptions came in the fourth quarter when he was trying to rally the Bruins from a 29-17 deficit.
“I’m not mad about it; I’m not sad about it,” Hundley said. “How you respond defines you as a man.”
Asked about whether he saw anything on the game video that indicated he made mistakes in his reads, Hundley said, “When I see something, I’m going to believe in it. That is what my coach is teaching me. I threw the ball where I thought it should go.”
Mazzone took a share of the blame.
“We both need to do a better job of being a little more conservative, which is against my nature,” Mazzone said. “This is a volatile offense and we’re asking him to make a lot of decisions. I don’t want to take the heart out of him.”
Hundley had been trustworthy in the weeks leading up to the Cal game. He tied a UCLA freshman record by topping 300 yards passing in consecutive games against Rice, Nebraska and Houston. His first college play was a 72-yard touchdown run against Rice.
And just like that a redshirt freshman carried the weight of every UCLA fan’s hopes and dreams. But his coaches, while pleased and optimistic, also remained realistic.
“You have to be careful that you don’t put too high of expectations on him too early,” Mora said. “Every game there’s something happening to Brett that he’s never seen before. Hopefully he learns.”