PASADENA, Calif. — Although Brett Hundley is a freshman quarterback with only two starts under his belt at UCLA, he knows the surprising Bruins already have a concern most of his recent predecessors never faced.
Unbeaten and ranked for the first time in four years, long-struggling UCLA must guard against overlooking its next opponent.
"It's nice to have a number next to your name, but it's all about the number of wins, not the number of your ranking," Hundley said.
The No. 22 Bruins (2-0) are hoping to roll up another bunch of big numbers against Houston (0-2) on Saturday night when they play their first home game as a ranked team in a half-decade.
UCLA got to this point by winning at Rice before knocking off Nebraska last week. The Bruins appear to have a potent offense and a smart defense led by new coach Jim Mora, whose extensive NFL knowledge translated into the immediate success with an attention-grabbing 36-30 win over the Cornhuskers.
"We all know we beat a really good team last week, but we know we can't let up," said defensive end Datone Jones, whose fourth-quarter sack for a safety put the Bruins ahead for good. "It feels awesome. Everyone's family is calling them. Everyone wants tickets now. Everyone wants to be a Bruin fan now. ... We went down to Houston last year and took the L, so that's on our minds."
Indeed, UCLA lost 38-34 at Houston last year, kicking off another mediocre campaign that eventually led to Mora's arrival. The former Falcons and Seahawks coach wasn't an enormously popular hire, but early results of his program overhaul — complete with a training camp in San Bernardino to encourage team bonding — are wildly successful, particularly among his players.
"I'm loving this year," UCLA tight end Joseph Fauria said. "It's always good to have some attention here and there. School hasn't even started yet, but it's a good vibe."
The Bruins spent all week consciously guarding against a letdown after beating Nebraska. The Cougars are off to a rough start under new coach Tony Levine, losing their first two games to Texas State and Louisiana Tech while allowing 86 points and 1,042 yards, but Hundley isn't anticipating an easy night in his third career start.
"We keep our nose down," Hundley said. "We'll let others read about that stuff. We've always tried to stay level-headed and grounded, no matter what's going on around us."
Levine realizes his quest for his first regular-season victory isn't getting any easier after the Cougars' opening losses. Houston's trip to Pasadena two years ago isn't a good omen, either: The 23rd-ranked Cougars lost 31-13 after record-setting quarterback Case Keenum was injured, his season ending with a torn knee ligament on the Rose Bowl turf.
"The stats they have put up in two games are ridiculous," Levine said. "It's no accident they are 2-0 and ranked in the Top 25. They are a sound team on all phases. It's going to be a big challenge, and our players are excited for it."
Levine paid particular respect to UCLA tailback Johnathan Franklin, the nation's leading rusher after racking up 214 yards against Rice and 217 more against Nebraska. The senior known as "Jet Ski" to his teammates persevered through the Bruins' struggles over the previous three years, but he's not ready to bask in success yet.
Franklin rushed for 158 yards and three touchdowns in the Bruins' home win over Houston two years ago, yet he's only one part of the Bruins' offensive plan. Hundley has been even better than expected in his first two starts, calmly leading UCLA's offense on marches that resemble the Houston offense's relentless play — at least in results, if not always in tempo.
There's a reason for that connection: UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, former Houston coach Kevin Sumlin and Levine all have a common coaching lineage going back to Minnesota, where Mazzone coached quarterbacks and Sumlin coached the receivers while Levine was a Gophers receiver in the mid-90s.
"What they are doing out there, they got some of it from us with (former Houston assistant coaches) Dana Holgorsen and Kliff Kingsbury," Levine said. "But (Mazzone) has put his own twist on it. When people watch us on Saturday night, they'll see similarities between both offenses with the motions and the quick game."
Mora isn't worried about overconfidence just yet, even though the Bruins could be significantly favored in every game they'll play for the next month. He refuses to allow his players to think past the fast-moving, innovative Cougars, who play fast enough to ruin a Rose Bowl celebration in a hurry.
"They are very similar to what we do offensively," Mora said. "Noel has worked with a couple of those guys. They are up-tempo and do a tremendous job of protection. It's hard to get pressure on them. ... (It's important) to make sure we match their tempo defensively, getting them off the field so they can't throw 75 times and run 120 plays."