- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
TUCSON, Ariz. -- UCLA is trying to win the Pac-12 South Division championship, and it has been doing so while often playing four true freshmen on offense. So it made perfect sense Saturday on the road against division rival Arizona to take a true freshman starter on defense and hand him the football on offense in a high-pressure situation and, you know, see how things go.
It was third-and-1 on the Bruins' 34-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Arizona had just cut the Bruins' lead to five points. The Wildcats, with their home crowd juiced, had the momentum. But they had no idea they were about to get Myles Jack'ed.
Jack, the centerpiece of a new UCLA offensive package that featured several defensive players, took a handoff, got the edge, threw off a couple of Wildcats and rumbled 66 yards for the Bruins' final touchdown in a 31-26 victory.
Jack finished with 120 yards on just six carries. Oh, and he had eight tackles and a fumble recovery on defense.
"He'll be a first-round [NFL] pick as a linebacker," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. "We tried to recruit him as a running back."
Sometimes you've got to improvise, but improvisation is only as good as its execution. The package featuring Jack, a dominant two-way player at Bellevue (Wash.) High School last year, was devised only this week. It could have ended up as merely a quirk in the game plan, but it turned out to be the critical game-changer in a key contest that elevated the Bruins in the South race while demoting the Wildcats. They entered the game with identical records, overall and in conference play.
All the fancy stuff is fun, but it's really about winning by any means necessary. It's about survival. UCLA was one of the survivors this weekend.
On Thursday, Oregon's fancy got stuffed by Stanford, and now the Cardinal has the lead in the North Division. On Saturday, both UCLA and Arizona State, which needed a late rally to beat Utah 20-19, were able to win tough South games on the road, while resurgent USC stomped on flagging California 62-28.
Stanford will move up a click in the BCS standings on Sunday as the nation's top one-loss team. The Cardinal merely need to win at USC on Saturday, then beat rival Cal, winless in conference play, on Nov. 23, and it will advance to the Pac-12 title game.
In other words, Stanford controls its own destiny. Just as Arizona State and UCLA do. Only one or the other will yield that control when they meet on Nov. 23. USC shares the same 4-2 conference record as the Bruins, but it already has lost to Arizona State, which is 5-1. The Trojans conclude their season by hosting UCLA at the Coliseum on Nov. 30.
So the picture is a bit clearer in the Pac-12 after a decidedly interesting weekend, but it is still blurry and uncertain, and it features a lot of football ahead.
The division winners who emerge on Nov. 30 will know that they endured perhaps the toughest grind in conference history.
"It's hard to win, man, it's hard," UCLA coach Jim Mora said.
Just take the Bruins' win over the Wildcats. Multiple times, it looked like UCLA was about to assert itself. It led 21-10 at the half, and Jack's touchdown seemed like a potential icer in the fourth.
But the Wildcats quickly went 75 yards for a touchdown to again close within five. At that point, the game had been mostly about offensive playmaking, with Jack, Bruins QB Brett Hundley and Arizona running back Ka'Deem Carey and QB B.J. Denker making big plays. But it was the defenses that ruled most of the fourth.
Arizona's defense twice got stops and the ball back for its offense in the fourth, giving it a chance to score a go-ahead touchdown. But both times the Bruins' defense prevented the Wildcats from even getting a first down.
"When we watch the film," Rodriguez said. "We are not going to be very happy."
Rodriguez is surely thinking about three red zone failures. The Wildcats got stopped on a fourth-and-1 at the UCLA 15-yard line in the first quarter; Carey fumbled on the 1-yard line as he appeared on the cusp of scoring; and Denker was stopped for a 6-yard loss on third-and-1 from the UCLA 4-yard line, forcing the Wildcats to kick a field goal.
That's not fancy. That's one team making plays and the other not. The Bruins, by the way, don't have much of a recent history of making those clutch plays, particularly on the road. This was their first win in Tucson since 2003.
"This team is different," Hundley said. "I think it is starting to show. And I think people are starting to take notice just how different this team is than all the past teams."
Jack certainly is different -- as in special. He already has been one of the nation's best true freshman linebackers this season. Now he has shown he can be a dynamic running back. A two-way star playing high-level AQ conference football is a rare thing. Jack is like former Stanford FB/LB Owen Marecic, only with far more athletic ability.
"It's remarkable, but it doesn't surprise me," Mora said of Jack's performance.
There, of course, is a fine line between getting as much as possible out of Jack while not creating diminishing returns by playing him too much. Running back and linebacker are taxing, high-contact, high-aerobic positions.
Jack admitted he was exhausted after the game, but that didn't stop him from joking about playing running back.
"I don't know if I wanted to show them that side of me, because now they're going to be trying to make me run the ball all the time," Jack said.
Jack didn't pause when asked which position he preferred: linebacker.
"I like to hit people rather than be hit," he said. "But whatever the team wants me to do, I'm with it."
That's sort of how things are in the Pac-12 right now. It's better to hit than be hit, and the teams competing at the top are doing whatever they can to win.
Stanford, Arizona State, UCLA and USC all had good weekends. Each did what it had to do to remain in contention.
"I feel really confident in the way we are handling things," Hundley said. "I think we're in second right now. And we'll get a chance to play ASU. As long as we keep winning games, we control our own destiny."
Being in control is a good thing. On this Saturday, the Bruins asserted their control by Myles Jacking Arizona.
9hKevin Gemmell and Sam Khan Jr.
15hKyle Bonagura and David Hale