Week 3: A Pac-12 turning point

Brett Hundley pays homage to late teammate Nick Pasquale after UCLA beat Nebraska. AP Photo/Nati Harnik

For four months, ESPN The Magazine will follow the march to the Vizio BCS National Championship, moment by moment, culminating in our Story of the Season double issue Dec. 27. Every Tuesday, Mag senior writer Ryan McGee will pick the previous week’s biggest moments and tell you why they’ll have the most impact on potential BCS title matchups. If you disagree, send a tweet to @ESPNMag and tell us why your moment matters more, using the hashtag #StoryoftheSeason. Who knows? Your moment (and tweet) might just end up in our issue.

AS UCLA jogged off the field at Nebraska's Memorial Stadium, having erased an 18-point first-half deficit to defeat the Cornhuskers 41-21, one Bruin began to cry. Then another. And another.

The magnitude of the moment was felt by all, the release instantaneous. It was a stunning visual of a team finally letting go of what it had held inside for a week.

Yes, UCLA had just knocked off a ranked team, higher-ranked according to the USA Today coaches' poll. Yes, the Bruins had scored 38 unanswered points in 31 minutes. Yes, quarterback Brett Hundley, who went 16-of-24 for 295 yards and three TDs and added 61 yards rushing, might have stepped into the Heisman ring. And yes, the team had officially announced itself as the favorite in the Pac-12 South and a legit contender to win the league. But the flow of tears had little if nothing to do with any of that.

"We realized this game is bigger than just us now," Hundley explained. "Everybody is always so worried about themselves, but this game is so much bigger and we understand that now."

Hundley's waist towel was emblazoned with "R.I.P. #36." Every member of the team wore a patch with that same number on their jerseys; the Huskers wore it on their helmets. It was a combined memorial to UCLA walk-on wide receiver Nick Pasquale, who was killed early on the morning of Sept. 8, when he was hit by a car as he walked alongside the road near his home in San Clemente, Calif.

Hundley, who threw all three TDs in the final six minutes of the third quarter, spent the final seconds of the game waving that towel from the bench area, drawing applause from the small group of fans wearing true blue and gold. But Nebraska students who had hung around for the end also applauded. Some of them had participated in a somber pregame ceremony in which they released balloons in Pasquale's memory and held up a sign reading: "Two Schools, One Team." The Huskers faithful put aside their disgust over their team's pitiful second-half performance to give the Bruins a classy sendoff of applause.

"Our aim is to be special," said UCLA coach Jim Mora. "Our aim is not to be average."

So how special can this team really be? We'll find out in a hurry. After a home game with perpetually miserable New Mexico State, the Bruins come off a bye and travel to Utah for a Thursday night game. (They've been drubbed on their last two visits.) After hosting Cal at the Rose Bowl, they make back-to-back trips to No. 5 Stanford and No. 2 Oregon. Not to mention back-to-back home games against currently-ranked Washington (Nov. 15) and Arizona State (Nov. 23).

It's safe to say that by the time UCLA visits the Coliseum to play USC on Nov. 30, its season will have either spiraled into an around-.500 campaign or been the worthiest BCS run of the 2013 season.

Because the Pac-12 has proved, top to bottom, it's back. As a conference, it went 8-1 against quality opponents in Week 3 (even if one of those victories was tainted by the bizarre final play of Arizona State's win over Wisconsin). The only loss was Cal's defeat at home to No. 4 Ohio State. So whichever team emerges from the Pac-12 title game on Dec. 7, there shouldn't be any question that the winner belongs in the BCS title game, something that hasn't been apparent the last few seasons.

"I know it's a cliche, but this is one week at a time," said Mora. "Last week was one day at a time, sometimes one hour at a time. Now we'll move forward and Nick will move forward with us."

But first, the Bruins had to take one more trip back. On Sunday morning they boarded buses to San Clemente to attend Pasquale's memorial service ... and Hundley gave his towel from the Nebraska win to Nick's family.

AJ McCARRON AND Johnny Manziel seem destined to be forever linked in the annals of SEC history. Entering 2013, they'd already done enough to ensure their place together, especially after last year's thriller in Tuscaloosa and this past summer's weird "Why didn't McCarron wake Johnny up at the Manning camp?" controversy.

But the slugfest that the two unlikely friends unleashed in this year's first official "Game of the Season" was like something out of "Rocky II." After spotting A&M a 14-point lead, McCarron coolly stroked his way through the rest of the first half with touchdown passes of 22, 44 and 51 yards. Manziel started the second half with what should have been a backbreaking pick-six, but instead he threw four TDs of his own, including a 95-yarder to Mike Evans.

It was in the middle of that Johnny Football barrage that McCarron, who is becoming increasingly tired of the "game manager" label, smoothly swung to his right on play-action. He gave up what looked like a safer run into the end zone, instead flicking a 5-yard score on third down to Jalston Fowler that essentially iced the game.

In the end, McCarron and Manziel combined to go 48-of-68 for 798 yards and nine TDs. Manziel had the day's only two interceptions, but also added 98 yards rushing to McCarron's 0. I was watching the game while on the phone with an NFL scout, who relished the comparison of the two signal-callers.

"I love to watch Manziel play," he said. "But it feels so impromptu. That one play in the second quarter, breaking loose of the tacklers, scrambling his butt off and then completing a blind pass downfield ... that's great as a fan. But coaches in our league, they get a little twitchy about impromptu.

"McCarron makes things happen within the game plan. He makes decisions that are smart, but he still keeps it within the boundaries of what the plan was. Coaches love that. Here's the play, execute it without stupid mistakes. AJ does that all day and all night. That might not win you a bunch of quarterback awards, but it will win you a lot of rings."

Nick Saban put it more succinctly: "He wanted the ball in his hands on third-and-5 at the end of the game."

Translation: You can have your game manager talk and Heisman trophy discussions. This kid's a winner, no matter what you say.