SALT LAKE CITY — The barking from the head coach started early in the week.
“Don’t be average,” Jim Mora screamed at the players. “Did you come here to be average?”
Mora’s words echoed off walls near the Bruins’ practice facility. They were ringing in ears Thursday in Utah.
“There was nothing average about that one,” quarterback Brett Hundley said.
The Bruins survived for a 34-27 victory over Utah in their Pac-12 opener at Rice-Eccles Stadium. It was an average October night in Salt Lake City, with snow before the game, snow during the game and snow afterward.
It was an above-average performance by the Bruins, who scored 10 fourth-quarter points for a 34-24 lead with three minutes left, then endured a pressure-cooker finish.
An interception by linebacker Myles Jack — the Bruins’ sixth of the game — finally secured a victory that left the No. 12 Bruins (4-0 overall, 1-0 in conference play) as the only team in the Pac-12 South Division without a loss.
“The thing with this team, we’ve just got to be great,” Hundley said. “I think this team is really showing that we can be great. Sometimes it’s going to be a grind-it-out game. At the end of the day, we have so much potential we can’t waste it being average.”
There was nothing average about Hundley’s night.
The Bruins came in second nationally in total offense, but their lickety-split offense was “held” to 404 yards, 200 below their average.
Hundley accounted for much of it. He had 211 yards passing, 85 yards rushing, threw for one touchdown, ran for one and even caught a touchdown pass.
Receiver Devin Fuller, on a gadget play, tossed a seven-yard scoring pass to Hundley in the second quarter.
But Hundley’s most above-average moment came in response to his fourth-quarter gaffe.
The Bruins intercepted five passes in the second half. But the offense labored, which left opportunity. Hundley provided one.
On a third-down play, Hundley scrambled left, then scrambled right. He then made a poor decision, tossing the ball across the field. Utah’s Keith McGill gobbled up the pass and went 19 yards for a touchdown, getting Utah even, 24-24, with 13 minutes left.
The Bruins responded with a field-goal drive that Hundley extended twice with third-down completions. His eight-yard run set up a 47-yard field goal by Ka’imi Fairbairn.
On the next series, Hundley lobbied for a quarterback draw and was given the green light. He sprinted 36 yards for a touchdown.
“He is really reaching to find the next level,” Mora said. “Everyone might have a bad play, a bad series, even a bad game. The great ones find a way to get it done.”
The Bruins’ defense helped. Utah quarterback Travis Wilson had 165 yards passing in the first half, when he and Hundley played can-you-top-this. Hundley had 175 yards passing in the first half.
Wilson threw for 288 yards and tossed two touchdown passes for the game but was also picked off six times.
“That’s the sign of a good team,” Mora said. “One side is struggling; the other picks it up.
“This was a great indicator of what’s ahead. I was glad we came on the road for our first game and glad it was tough. It wasn’t perfect and wasn’t a thing of beauty offensively, but we found a way.”
For what lies ahead, the Bruins need to continue to do that.
The Bruins play California at the Rose Bowl on Oct. 12, then the road gets bumpy.
There is a trip to Palo Alto to play No. 5 Stanford, followed by a journey to Eugene to play No. 2 Oregon. The Bruins must also play at Arizona and USC, both spots that have been no-win situations for the Bruins in recent seasons.
“If you want to be a good team, you have to win on the road,” receiver Shaquelle Evans said. “People always talk about taking care of your home field. You’re suppose to take care of the home field. The hard thing is, ‘Can you win on the road?’ ”
An answer came from a hard night on the road Thursday.
The Bruins lost running back Jordon James, the nation’s fifth-leading rusher, to an ankle injury in the first half. Tackle Torian White broke an ankle in the second quarter. Even Hundley had to go to the sidelines in the second quarter after taking a hit to the head.
“My vision was blurry,” Hundley said. “I looked at the line of scrimmage and saw 22 people.”
After James left, enter Paul Perkins, who gained 92 yards rushing. He had 36 on the fourth-quarter drive that produced Fairbairn’s go-ahead field goal.
First-year freshman Caleb Benenoch replaced White and spent the night playing next to guard Alex Redmond, another freshman.
“I’m not sure people are going to understand,” Hundley said. “We lost our running back, our tackle. I had to go out. There was a lot of stuff going on. Guys stepped up. That’s something that is not average.”