As Brett Hundley sprinted the length of the Rose Bowl field to colorfully catapult into the chest of leaping teammate Devin Fuller above the cool autumn shadows, one could only wonder.
Was the kid quarterback running to something, or from something?
At this tenuous point in the second season of UCLA football's greatest hope, it's probably both.
Hundley is furiously racing toward a big late-November stage and possible early NFL exit while desperately attempting to outrun the talk that he's not ready for either.
A Saturday afternoon playground date with consistently buffaloed Colorado provided a nice respite from it all. For a three-hour stretch between the twin disappointments of Stanford and Oregon and the hopes of a difficult home stretch, Hundley had big fun. His 76-yard first-quarter touchdown pass to Fuller on a ball that traveled nearly 60 yards in the air — followed by a celebratory chest bump that rocked — was only the start of his strong work in the Bruins 45-23 victory.
"There was no better recipe for him than that play . . . it was like, whewww," UCLA Coach Jim Mora said of Hundley's opening strike. "The kid has looked burdened the last two weeks. He didn't look burdened tonight."
Pitching against the nation's 105th-ranked pass defense, Hundley took what the Buffaloes gave him, and they pretty much handed him all of Pasadena. He completed all but five of 24 passes for 273 yards, two touchdowns, and zero picks. He was also the Bruins' leading rusher with 72 yards and ran for two more touchdowns.
Those two rushing touchdowns gave him 15 for his career, allowing him to pass television star Mark Harmon for seventh place on a UCLA quarterback list that is led by Gary Beban's 35 rushing scores. Appropriately, he has beaten the dude with the star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but is still a long way from beating that dude with the Heisman.
The season began with Hundley in the middle of the statue hype, but he has since become a bronzed afterthought. Entering Saturday's game, his passer efficiency rating of 147.3 was virtually identical to that of his inconsistent rookie season, ranking him only 37th in the country, far behind a top five that included the likes of Oregon rival Marcus Mariota and reigning Heisman holder Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M.
Hundley was supposed to be one of those guys. Instead, he has struggled to be more than just a guy. He has had trouble finding footing behind a young offensive line. He has missed the steadiness of running back Johnathan Franklin. He has perhaps suffered from the loss of quarterbacks coach Marques Tuiasosopo.
He didn't mention any of that Saturday, saying only that he's just trying to learn and have fun.
"I know some people might think I feel burdened, but I don't," Hundley said. "Every game I have a new attitude, new enthusiasm, every game I come out to play."
Whatever the reason, three games ago, that play began to show cracks.
Three times against California — perhaps the only team in the Pac-12 Conference that is worse than Colorado — the Bruins were inside the 10-yard line, and yet Hundley could direct them only to field goals. A week later, Hundley completed only one pass longer than 16 yards in a loss to Stanford. Then last week, he threw for only 64 yards to Oregon.
In the two losses against the legitimate defenses of the Cardinal and the Ducks, he threw for only two touchdowns with four interceptions while making increasingly poor downfield decisions and showing a strange backfield tentativeness.
"But two losses aren't going to kill a team or a player," Hundley said. "We've got the confidence — I've got the confidence — to come back from that. We showed it tonight."
Against a team with one win against an FBS foe this season, Hundley happily buffed his resume.
"It seemed like he exhaled a little bit," Mora said. "I saw it this week in practice. He had a smile on his face, he didn't have as much tension with the way he approached everything."
His bomb to Fuller was his longest touchdown pass of the season by 44 yards. He followed that score by leading the Bruins on a 61-yard scoring drive in which he ran or passed on six of the eight plays, running the last 11 yards himself.
Less than two minutes later, he led them to another score with a six-yard strike to Fuller. In the third quarter, Hundley clinched the win with a 12-play drive that ended with his giant step into the end zone to give the Bruins a 28-13 lead.
Now comes the hardest part. Even though the Bruins didn't survive their two-week venture into the homes of the Pac-12's two best teams, they can still return north for the conference championship game and even wind up in the Rose Bowl.
But they face a brutal final stretch against Arizona, Washington, Arizona State and USC. They could win all four. They could lose all four. By the second week of December, Hundley could be running toward stardom or running from disillusionment.
The only thing certain is, it won't be both.