LINCOLN, Neb. — After an abysmal first quarter, UCLA was lucky to be down just 11 points heading into halftime.
The Bruins had made crucial mistakes and gifted Nebraska short fields, whether by interception or bobbled punt. Memorial Stadium, known for hosting one of the toughest home crowds in college football, looked to be wearing down on the visitors.
But when the clock ran down, UCLA walked out with a 41-21 blowout, its small pockets of fans cheering loudly as players and coaches ran past them into the tunnel.
How did it happen, the shift from sluggish to superlative? The Bruins took a big breath.
“We came in at halftime, just told kids, ‘Hey relax. I’m just going to call base plays. Just do what you guys do,’” offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said. “Our whole motto is play to the next play. We’re going to snap it once, play, forget about it, and just play the next one. Live in the moment of each play.”
The shift slowly began in the second quarter, when quarterback Brett Hundley rescued what became his team’s first touchdown drive. Playing loose and free, he scrambled away from defenders, transforming what looked like a drive-ending sack to a 13-yard gain and first down.
From then on, UCLA turned juggernaut. The Bruins rumbled for 236 offensive yards in the third quarter, scoring 28 of their 38 unanswered points.
After the game, both coaches downplayed the notion of halftime adjustments, chalking the bulk of the change to execution.
“There was no mystical, magical X’s and O’s,” UCLA’s Jim Mora said. “It was all our players doing what they are supposed to do.”
“It’s nothing magical,” Nebraska’s Bo Pelini said. “It wasn’t anything they hadn’t done in the first half.”
On offense, the Bruins dialed up the tempo and found their rhythm. Jordon James, who had just 18 yards on 10 carries in the first half, ended with a game-high 105. His 38-yard run was one of the game’s biggest highlights — and likely would’ve reached the end zone with one more well-placed block.
“All the running backs started less looking for the big play and and just taking yards,” Mazzone said. “Whether it was three yards or four yards, instead of always looking for 50-yard runs. When backs look for 50-yard runs, they usually end up minus five yards.”
On the other end, UCLA successfully bottled up Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez. The senior is the fifth quarterback in FBS history to rush for over 3,000 career yards while passing for more than 6,500. Against the Bruins, he had the second-worst rushing performance of his career, taking two sacks and finishing with -13 yards.
“We just felt like we needed to make him make throws on us,” Mora said. “That’s not to take anything away from his ability to throw the ball. As you saw in the first half, he had three touchdown passes. We felt like he’s most dangerous when he’s out creating.”
The performance wasn’t flawless. UCLA’s secondary sprinkled in strong moments, including a big tackle by safety Randall Goforth, but looked out of its depth against receivers Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa, who combined for three touchdowns and 107 yards. Still, the Bruins did enough, and now have another week to improve.
“We made a few adjustments, but for what we needed to do was calm down,” safety Anthony Jefferson said. “The second half, we came out fast.”
And the Cornhuskers? They just came out looking lost.
“I guess we just lost our step and our sense of urgency,” cornerback Ciante Evans said. “Guys were unfocused. I don’t know what happened.”
Added Pelini: “At times, when I looked at our guys on the sideline, it looked like they’d seen a ghost.”