ARLINGTON, Texas -- Without quarterback Brett Hundley, UCLA could not win. It didn't matter that Texas was beaten up and beaten down. It didn't matter that Hundley was just one guy. He was The Guy, the face of the Bruins, the biggest reason some touted them in the preseason as national title contenders. Moreover, to put it gently, the depth chart behind him was unpromising.
Backup Jerry Neuheisel? Son of Rick Neuheisel, the guy who was fired before Jim Mora built the Bruins into contenders? The guy who some suspected got a scholarship only because his dad was the head coach? No way.
So when Hundley was surrounded by trainers after going down with an apparent elbow injury in the first quarter against the Longhorns, you could sense impending doom. You could sense the Bruins, who had struggled to beat Virginia and Memphis with Hundley, joining teams such as Ohio State, Clemson, South Carolina, Georgia and Michigan State on the slag heap of exposed contenders.
Texas thought the same thing.
"[Neuheisel and Hundley] are two different quarterbacks," Texas cornerback Quandre Diggs said. "One guy is up for the Heisman and the other guy is someone we've never heard of."
"As soon as I saw [Thomas'] eyes, I thought, 'Oh, my God, this might just work,'" Neuheisel said.
The Bruins were down four on Texas' 33-yard line and pretty much hadn't allowed Neuhiesel to throw downfield since he came off the bench, but offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone expected man coverage and decided Payton might get free with a double move.
In fact, Thomas appeared to bite on Neuheisel's pump fake, and the ball arrived soft and sweet into Payton's hands. Touchdown. After the defense forced a four-and-done, the Bruins hoisted Neuheisel onto their shoulders. They'd won 20-17 without Hundley to improve to 3-0.
"I felt like it was going to be a little bit of a defining moment for us," UCLA coach Jim Mora said of when Hundley went down.
While it might seem to some like an ugly 3-0 for the nation's No. 12 team, it was a dream come true for Neuheisel. Literally. He told his teammates that at halftime. He grew up dreaming of following in his dad's footsteps as the UCLA quarterback, imagining throwing winning touchdowns in his backyard. The general expectation from fans and media, however, was the redshirt sophomore would remain on the bench behind Hundley, holding for field goals and then backing up whoever won the job next year when Hundley was off to the NFL.
Yet a point of emphasis from Mora and the Bruins after their victory was never doubting Neuheisel.
"We all expected it," Payton said.
Said Mora, "His team fricken' loves him. There was never any doubt."
Well, there was and is some doubt. What's next, for one, is a big issue. Hundley's status is questionable, to say the least. Mora would only say Hundley would be evaluated by UCLA team doctors back in Los Angeles. While beating a struggling Texas team with a backup QB is one thing, the Bruins visit Arizona State on Sept. 25 after a bye week. That's an entirely different deal, a critical South Division showdown. Of course, in an unfortunate twist of fate, both teams could be without their starting quarterbacks, as Taylor Kelly suffered a foot injury against Colorado on Saturday.
Neuheisel, who completed 23 of 30 passes for 178 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, could square off with Sun Devils backup Mike Bercovici in a game with major Pac-12, and even national, implications. The Bruins, however, were still operating inside the 24-hour rule Saturday, which means their primary concern is enjoying the present, not refocusing on the next foe.
Neuheisel is his father's son. He looks and sounds like Rick Neuheisel, and he's quick with a quip like his dad. When he walked into the postgame interview room, he noted, "Holders don't get this kind of publicity." After the elder Neuheisel led the Bruins to an upset of Illinois in the 1984 Rose Bowl, he cracked wise during a postgame interview about the Fighting Illini band blasting music behind him.
"I just talked to my dad," Jerry Neuheisel said. "He said, 'You did it. It's kind of a Neuheisel thing.'"
On a day when UCLA's crosstown rival, USC, wilted at Boston College, the Bruins found a way to dig deep, overcome adversity and win. UCLA might not be a beautiful 3-0, but it is 3-0 and that's what matters.
"They never flinched," Mora said. "They never blinked. That's kind of what we are trying to become. And we're getting closer and closer every day."