UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley will make the short walk from the locker room to the Arizona Stadium field Saturday night minutes before a nationally televised, prime-time game that could go a long way in deciding the Pac-12 South champion.
It was always supposed to be this way.
Though if Arizona fans and coaches had their way, the former Chandler High School star would be wearing cardinal and navy for this showdown instead of blue and gold.
Hundley represents the exact type of player Rich Rodriguez wants to recruit to Tucson. The quarterback was the top in-state recruit in 2011 and had offers from every Pac-12 team.
Yet the dual-threat quarterback never seriously considered his in-state options. He chose UCLA over Washington while Rodriguez — Arizona’s second-year coach — was still at Michigan.
Had Rodriguez been in Tucson already, you could bet he would have made a serious pitch to keep one of Arizona’s best within state limits.
“I’ve said since Day 1, in order for us to successfully compete for championships year-in and year-out, we have to be able to recruit well in the state of Arizona,” Rodriguez said. “It’s our base state. We have to do well in our home state.”
But instead of having Hundley on his side Saturday, Rodriguez must find a way to stop him. The redshirt sophomore has thrown for 1,998 yards and 16 touchdowns in eight games this season, though he has been intercepted eight times. The 6-foot-3-inch, 222-pound Hundley has also run for 431 yards and six touchdowns. Earlier this week, he was named a semifinalist for the Davey O’Brien Award, given annually to the top quarterback in the country.
“He’s a great quarterback,” UA junior safety Tra’Mayne Bondurant said. “You can tell from last year to this year that he’s developed a lot and has gotten a lot smarter. We have to disrupt him as much as we can and tackle him as much as we can and get him to the ground.”
That, of course, is easier said than done.
The last time these two teams met, Hundley posted one of the best games of his career. The quarterback completed 23 of 28 passes for 288 yards and three touchdowns. He also added a 6-yard rushing score in UCLA’s 66-10 blowout win at the Rose Bowl.
And if you listen to Rodriguez, he’ll tell you Hundley is considerably better now than he was a season ago.
“He’s more experienced; he understands the system better,” Rodriguez said. “He knows where to go with the ball quicker, and he’s more decisive. He’s the total package.”
The UA hasn’t faced a quarterback like Hundley yet this season. The Wildcats have seen pure passers such as Cal’s Jared Goff and USC’s Cody Kessler, and they have faced signal-callers — such as Washington’s Keith Price and Utah’s Travis Wilson — that run when pressured.
Hundley is just as comfortable running as he is passing.
“Any time the pocket pressure is not immaculate, he’s able to make things happen,” UA nose tackle Tevin Hood said. “He an against-the-grain runner. When you see quarterbacks that can run like Mike Vick, it’s because they have speed and take the angle. Hundley runs against the flow of the defense and because of that, it takes guys by surprise. He’s really been able to use his legs against us to create stuff.”
It’s also not easy bringing his large body to the ground.
“He’s definitely harder than the guy from Utah or the guy from Cal to get to the ground,” Hood said. “He has more girth to him. He was a track runner in high school, so he has strong legs, and he’s elusive.”
Still, Hundley has been far from perfect this season. He has struggled both on the road and against good competition. In road games against Stanford, Oregon, Utah and Nebraska, Hundley has as many touchdowns (six) as he does interceptions.
In order for Arizona to force Hundley into his “C” game, Bondurant said the defense has to not only play well but smart.
“He can stand back there before the play and read coverages and read plays and make you pay,” Bondurant said. “If we can move around and show him some things he hasn’t seen and confuse him a little, it will be big for us. We have to get to him and try to make him fumble and be insecure with the ball.”