UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin sprints past the Rice defense on his… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
HOUSTON — UCLA lost its season opener in this city a year ago. Much has changed since then, leading up to Thursday, when the Bruins played another opener here, this time against a different team and with a different team — a new coach, new quarterback, new offense, new everything.
The result was different too.
UCLA christened the Jim Mora era with a win, beating Rice, 49-24, at Rice Stadium.
Freshman quarterback Brett Hundley began his collegiate career with a 72-yard touchdown run on his very first snap, and the Bruins scored more than they had in any game last season, led by Johnathan Franklin, who ran for 214 yards and three touchdowns, one for 78 yards and another for 74.
The box score will give UCLA fans optimism: 646 total yards, 343 on the ground, 303 in the air. Plus, the Bruins' first five plays from scrimmage resulted in three touchdowns. But their win was not without growing pains.
"I never felt like we were getting in any kind of rhythm," first-year offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said of UCLA's first outing in its no-huddle, spread offense.
Maybe not, but the Bruins' first play was straight out of a storybook.
Mazzone wanted Franklin to run the ball to start the game. Instead, on the play — a zone-read option — Hundley put the ball in Franklin's hands, then pulled it out.
"Another example of overcoming your coach," Mazzone said, laughing.
Hundley said he didn't know how he split two nearby defenders, but he did, then ran down the right sideline, picking up a key block from receiver Shaquelle Evans to score.
"I didn't know he was that fast," Mazzone said. "I should call that play more often."
"It hasn't hit me," said Hundley, who completed 21 of 28 passes for 202 yards, two touchdowns and an interception to go with 68 total rushing yards after sitting out last season. "Probably when I get on the plane, I'll be like, 'Wow, the first-ever play of my college career was a touchdown!'"
UCLA jumped out to a 19-0 lead, but its offense and defense both hit a lull after that, and Rice, a two-touchdown underdog, came within two points of the Bruins in the second quarter.
In the second half, UCLA's defense came alive, thanks to some adjustments, and held Rice scoreless and to 66 total yards.
Owls quarterback Taylor McHargue accounted for 267 total yards (172 passing) and three touchdowns, but his defense put up little fight.
For example, UCLA had many big plays — three of 70 yards or more in the first half after one such play all of last season — but Rice gives up big plays often: It yielded 23 plays of 40 or more yards last season, second most in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The star, though, was Franklin, who was two rushing yards short of his career high (216) that he tallied against Washington State in 2010.
"It's really fun to watch him play," said Mora, his face drenched with sweat after a game played in the hot, sticky humidity in front of a sparse crowd of 23,105.
Franklin could only praise the offensive line.
"They opened up holes," he said. "You could've drove a bulldozer through those holes that they opened."
Mora, for his part, concentrated on what needed to be improved, such as special teams. The Bruins had three of their extra points blocked by Rice linebacker Cameron Nwosu, who set an NCAA record.
As for Hundley, Mora said he thought the freshman was good at times, hesitant at others.
Mora didn't seem to care that it was his first game as a college coach. The result mattered more.
"It's a good start," he said.
UCLA will take it.