LOS ANGELES (AP) — Coach Jim Mora could tell his UCLA Bruins were trying too hard in the opening minutes of their first game since receiver Nick Pasquale’s death. Every play was weighted with excessive importance in their minds while they fell behind 21-3 at Nebraska.
“They were so afraid to make a mistake,” Mora said. “They wanted to make things happen so badly. You could see it on their faces.”
The 13th-ranked Bruins figured out how to handle those emotions, and they scored 38 consecutive points to beat the Huskers.
“I think they had to realize the reason they play football is because they love football, because they’re passionate about it — not necessarily playing it to honor somebody,” Mora said. “And they realized that, and they just calmed down, and they just started to have fun. They smiled. It was good to see them smile. You’re supposed to smile when you play ball.”
The next day, the Bruins joined more than 1,000 friends and family members in a crowd spilling out of the San Clemente Presbyterian Church for a memorial service one week after Pasquale was hit and killed by a car. The Bruins presented Pasquale’s father, Mel, with the Nebraska game ball, but felt they gave their greatest tribute to Pasquale through their effort in Lincoln.
“The main objective going out there was to honor Nick and his spirit and his toughness and his competitiveness, to be a reflection of him that his parents would notice on TV,” Mora said. “I felt like if we did that, we would win the game. Just make it about playing in a way that would represent how we felt about Nick.”
The first days of mourning are over, but most of the Bruins’ season still stretches before them. After a rough week in their young lives, the Bruins (2-0) are back at work on campus, still at the start of what could be a remarkable year for a program on the verge of breaking into the nation’s elite.
They’ll play on with Pasquale in their memory, but they’re determined to make every minute of the rest of their season count, starting Saturday against New Mexico State (0-3).
“To have the maturity and mental toughness to gather themselves back in the second half and get that win, I was very proud of them,” Mora said. “They showed me a lot of maturity. A lot of mental toughness. A lot of care. A lot of love. It was pretty special.”
The Bruins realize they’ve got to move on, and they’re doing it by accomplishing simple tasks — such as preparing for an opponent that hasn’t had a winning season in 11 years. UCLA isn’t taking the Aggies lightly, but the Bruins’ schedule gets a whole lot tougher in October.
“I think it’s human nature when you come off of something as emotional as we came off of last week,” Mora said. “You could understand how there could be a hangover for some of our kids, but we can’t let that happen, not if we’re going to be the kind of team we want to be.”
Quarterback Brett Hundley’s play reflected the Bruins’ entire effort in Lincoln: tentative and anxious early on, but nearly unstoppable later. The sophomore passed for 294 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 61 more yards, wearing down the Huskers’ vaunted defense.
Hundley wore a towel on the field that said: “RIP (hash)36.” A day later, he presented the towel to Pasquale’s family at the memorial service.
“We came into that game with a lot of emotions,” Hundley said. “But we settled down and got back to playing football.”
Mora, in just his second year as a college coach, is aware of football’s minuscule importance against matters of life and death. He hopes his sport can serve as both a coping mechanism and a vehicle for personal growth.
The Bruins will keep Pasquale in their thoughts, but Mora hopes they’ll also honor him by sticking together.
“I wanted them to understand that that’s a life lesson — that they’re not just responsible for themselves,” Mora said. “They’re responsible for those around them. If they stay together and they stay strong, and they show some empathy for each other, then great things can happen. I just want them to continue to learn. There’s going to be a lot of life lessons.”
(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)