Weekly Spotlight: After tragedy, UCLA set to visit Nebraska in Week 3
The scariest thing is it could’ve happened to anyone.
UCLA walk-on wide receiver Nick Pasquale was walking in a residential part of his hometown of San Clemente, Calif., early on Sunday when he was struck and killed by a vehicle. Now, even though there’s no suitable or accepted amount of mourning time, the Bruins have to find a way to play Nebraska on Saturday just a few days after the death of a member of their team and their family.
Teams usually are well rested after a bye week, but UCLA hasn’t had a typical week. Coach Jim Mora has fielded numerous questions about Pasquale, and his press conference on Monday was cut short after a television technician started talking on the phone while Mora was discussing what the player meant to his program.
The Bruins won last year’s meeting with the Huskers 36-30, thanks largely to a breakout performance from then-redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley and a late safety on a tackle of Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez. UCLA will play on the road, and Nebraska will honor Pasquale with a moment of silence and helmet decals.
“It’s most important that you’re available to [your team],” Mora said during the Pac-12 teleconference on Tuesday. “Football pales in comparison to what [the players] are going through right now, but it’s also an outlet for their emotion and their grief. It’s making myself available 100 percent of the day, and they know that. It helps them come to grips with their emotions and focus on the task at hand.”
This is a game between two ranked teams, and typically one that would be a matchup to anticipate. But these are the types of situations in which football takes a backseat to life.
“It’s just a tragic thing and is another example that sometimes we have to make sure we keep football in a proper perspective,” Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “We have great sympathy for what they’re going through as a program right now.”
Stopping Brett Hundley
In the meeting between the two teams a year ago, quarterback Hundley was an unknown quantity. He had played just one career game, a 49-24 win over Rice, and Nebraska didn’t have a whole lot of film on him with which to prepare.
After a 305-yard, four-touchdown showing, however, Hundley made his presence felt in dramatic fashion.
“We didn’t know a ton about him but we knew he was pretty talented coming out of high school,” Papuchis said. “We actually recruited him here. We knew he had the ability to make plays both with his feet and his arm, but there wasn’t a lot of game film to go off of. Over the course of the last year, we’ve worked hard in terms of studying him, the things he does well and some areas we could possibly have success against him. Stopping him and containing him is certainly going to be a key to this game.”
Hundley led UCLA to a nine-win campaign in his debut season, but the bar has been significantly raised in 2013. Now a sophomore, he looks to be the complete package, fine-tuning his ability to throw in the pocket or out in space.
Who is the real Taylor Martinez?
It’s impossible to preview a Nebraska game without mentioning its talented-but-flawed senior quarterback. Martinez has undeniable game-changing talent, and his ability to make something out of nothing on broken plays has won plenty of games for the Huskers. But his improvisational nature gets the team in trouble, too; he’s thrown 28 interceptions over his collegiate career. There’s no way of knowing which version of Martinez Nebraska is going to get.
“Martinez has weathered many storms and plenty of negativity in his time as a Husker,” Hail Varsity and Bleacher Report writer Erin Sorensen said. “Fans have assumed the worst one week while praising the veteran quarterback the next. Becoming the first Nebraska quarterback to start four season openers, Martinez has left a mark on Memorial Stadium, whether people wanted him to or not.”
Martinez has thrown for 6,916 yards and 52 touchdowns and rushed for 2,972 yards and 31 scores at Nebraska, but a mistake always seems like it’s right around the corner. If the good Martinez shows up on Saturday, the Huskers’ offense could be in for a big day against the Bruins.
Beware the ground game
While UCLA still has some question marks surrounding its running back production, its situation became a little more clear after redshirt junior Jordon James rushed for 155 yards and a touchdown against Nevada in Week 1. The Bruins have big shoes to fill after the Green Bay Packers selected Johnathan Franklin (who ran for 1,734 yards in 2012) in the fourth round of this year’s NFL draft, but if James can take hold of the job, UCLA’s offense should be a lot more stable.
On the other sideline, there are few doubts regarding Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah. On the heels of a 1,137-yard sophomore effort, Abdullah is a focal point in the backfield and has the skill set to take some pressure off Martinez.
“He can run inside and he can run outside,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said during the Big Ten teleconference on Tuesday. “He shows the ability to run with power between the tackles. Everybody knows his ability to make people miss.”
The quarterbacks may be the headliners in this matchup, but the running backs could make the difference between which team wins and which team loses.
With Hundley slinging the ball all over the field, there are plenty of receptions to go around for UCLA. Senior Shaquelle Evans might be the most reliable wide receiver on the Bruins, but sophomore Devin Fuller has unmistakable big-play ability. The former dual-threat quarterback at Old Tappan (N.J.) High had 21 catches in his freshman campaign, and the Orange County Register’s Ryan Kartje indicates he has a bit of Percy Harvin in him.
“Fuller has ridiculous hands and an extra gear that no other UCLA receiver can match,” Kartje said, “and now that he’s learned the receiver position, he should continue to rapidly improve. […] This guy is the real deal, and I expect that he’ll burst onto the scene sooner rather than later.”
For Nebraska, look out for defensive end Randy Gregory, a sophomore transfer from Arizona Western Community College. Gregory has the potential to wreak havoc in the backfield, and it’s only a matter of time before his technique catches up with his athleticism.
“He has a ton of talent,” Papuchis said, “and I think he’s a hard worker. He wants to learn everything there is to learn about what we’re doing defensively and how he can improve his play. He’s a tremendous athlete and he has not even scratched the surface of what I think he’ll end up being here as his career develops.”
• Ryan Kartje, Orange County Register: “I’m not sure anyone else on UCLA’s campus is in as good of graces with UCLA fans as Mora is. Football was a long-struggling program with one win over USC and one Rose Bowl berth since 1999. Then Mora came in, beat a hated rival and came within one kick of a Rose Bowl in just one season. That’s meant quite a bit to fans, and with things trending in the right direction and talented, nationally known players emerging under Mora’s tutelage — guys like Hundley, who redshirted as a freshman under Rick Neuheisel, and linebacker Anthony Barr, who was a formerly running back — people see talent translating to wins already. That’s led to plenty of optimism in Mora’s future.”
• Erin Sorensen, HailVarsity: “Head coach Pelini claimed in his press conference on Monday that this matchup with UCLA is not about revenge. However, players are saying differently. ‘They’re coming into our house and we owe them,’ Pelini supposedly told players. Regardless of whether or not revenge is a factor (it is), Pelini and his crew play best when faced with adversity. The adversity I’m referencing is not necessarily in prime time, the kind overhyped by the media because that often gets this team into trouble. The adversity I’m talking about is the kind where Nebraska was down 21 points to Ohio State at home in 2011 just after halftime.”