Which Bruin has the outside contain against Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez doesn’t really seem as significant as it did a week ago. How UCLA plans to attack Nebraska’s defense and the progression of the running back corps feels completely secondary.
“Football pales in comparison to what they are going through right now,” coach Jim Mora said.
This is the fine line Mora and his staff have had to toe since the Bruins returned to work following the death of wide receiver Nick Pasquale last weekend. It’s Mora’s job to be a father figure and to be emotionally available to his players. He’d call that his most important responsibility as a coach. But it’s also his job to prepare the 16th-ranked Bruins as they go on the road to face No. 23 Nebraska.
“First and foremost, it’s most important that you are available to them,” Mora said. “ . . . [Football is] also an outlet for their emotions and their grief and the things they are feeling. Just make myself available to them 100 percent of the day. And they know that. And I think when you do that, it helps them come to grips with their emotions and it helps them get focused on the task at hand. I think it’s just about being real. Being genuine. Being honest and being there for them.”
The Bruins will wear Pasquale’s No. 36 on their jerseys. Likewise, Nebraska will wear No. 36 on its helmets. Before kickoff, the 91,000 in Memorial Stadium in Lincoln also will hold a moment of silence. Mora praised Nebraska coach Bo Pelini for his empathy and the prayers and well-wishes of the Nebraska program. But he also knows that when the moment of silence ends, those 91,000 will be screaming for his team to lose.
“I don’t know that we could find a more difficult situation,” Mora said. “You combine what’s happened here from an emotional standpoint to our team over the last three days and how it’s affecting them. ... When the game starts, they want to win, we want to win, and their fans will be cheering like crazy for them. And we have to be able to handle all of that. We have to be able to handle our emotions. We have to remain poised and be able to overcome adversity. To me, those are things that define mental toughness is your ability to do that. It’s a tremendous test.”
Speaking of tests, the Bruins will be looking to slow down Nebraska's Martinez. During the bye last week, the coaching staff spent plenty of time evaluating what they did right and wrong in Week 1’s win over Nevada, which also boasts an athletic dual-threat quarterback in Cody Fajardo. He was Nevada’s offensive bright spot in the 58-20 loss, rushing for 106 yards and two touchdowns.
To slow Martinez, Mora said the Bruins' defenders have to account for him -- and not just react to him -- as a runner.
“You have to be assignment-perfect,” Mora said. “But what happens is you get frustrated and you do something you wouldn’t typically do and he exploits it. He’s a tenacious competitor. That’s what I respect so much about him is his competitive drive. [In last season's game] he never gave up. He was never down. He never conceded a down, and that makes it really difficult to defend a guy.
“ . . . Sometimes that forces you to do something silly on the next snap, and you can’t do that with this guy."
Nebraska is equally concerned about the playmaking of UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley. Last season’s 36-30 win over Nebraska in Pasadena was Hundley’s “hello, world” moment to the rest of college football.
“I think what’s good about Brett Hundley is that he is efficient,” Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “He doesn’t make a lot of bad decisions with the ball. When things aren’t there, he pulls it down and can hurt you with his feet. He’s effective in the running game, and he has the ability to throw the ball well so you have to make sure you’re very balanced in the way you defend him.”