UCLA football to face North Carolina State in Holiday Bowl amid COVID-19 concerns

It’s been four years since the Bruins have played a bowl game, and while they may have accepted an invite and made the trip to San Diego, the drought won’t be over until they are. in the field.

UCLA football (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12) has already confirmed the unavailability of two players for the upcoming Holiday Bowl against No.18 NC State (9-3, 6-2 ACC) on Tuesday , putting the brakes on the team’s long-awaited return to the playoffs. Forward Qwuantrezz Knight, the Bruins’ main tackle and one of their most vocal leaders, announced he would miss the game due to COVID-19 protocols late Thursday night, and offensive lineman Atonio Mafi has also was quarantined on Friday, according to a Facebook post by his father.

The exact number of players who were forced to stay at Westwood has yet to be determined, but the rest of the squad have already descended on San Diego to settle in for the weekend.

Coach Chip Kelly said he continues to focus on “Operation 22” – the 22 hours a day players do not spend participating in team activities – to avoid any further outbreaks.

“We have them two hours a day, and what are they doing the rest of the time? I think our kids did a really good job,” Kelly said. “We continued to emphasize this as a group and we kept our fingers crossed.”

Knight had already gone to two bowl games in his previous stops at Maryland and Kent State, but players like Mafi who have been with UCLA for the past four years have never made it to the college playoffs.

Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, barring last minute changes or positive tests, is one of those players who came alongside Kelly in 2018 and ultimately scratched and made his way to a bowl offer this fall. Thus, for the 978 attempted passes and 353 rush attempts he has accumulated during his career, Tuesday night will mark his first in a bowl game.

“We haven’t been idle since the last game,” said Thompson-Robinson. “I think it brings a level of excitement for the guys to change scenery and go out and play in front of some of our fans and stuff like that too.”

Taking a step back from the pandemic and the playoff break is the Bruins’ real opponent, the Wolfpack.

It was over 60 years since UCLA and NC State last faced each other, with the Bruins winning both games in Los Angeles 21-12 and 7-0 in 1959 and 1960, respectively. The Wolfpacks will return to Southern California in a much different position than they had when they made their way to that mid-century series – by then they had only appeared in one bowling game. , which they lost.

NC State has now grown to seven bowls in the past eight seasons, has already won three, and the program has reached nine wins in three of the past five years. UCLA has not achieved this feat once, let alone three times, since 2014.

Coach Dave Doeren is 87-53 with four bowl wins in the past decade, and he’s made the Wolfpack one of the most consistent offensive teams in the country since joining in 2013. For the fourth times in the past five seasons, NC State has averaged over 30 points per game in 2021, a far cry from the squad that was ruled out by UCLA three generations ago.

A key to that prolific offense this season has been quarterback Devin Leary, who sits third in the ACC with a passer rating of 157.0 to go with his 35 touchdowns and 3,433 yards in the air. Before raving about the Wolfpack’s backfield tandem of Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person or their overactive defense, Kelly’s early thoughts on the team included praise for Leary.

“Very good football team, their quarterback is exceptional,” said Kelly. “His TD-to-intercept ratio is off the charts.”

On the other side of the ball, NC State is playing a 3-3 stack designed to prevent big runs, something UCLA has relied heavily on with Zach Charbonnet, Brittain Brown and an offensive line of future NFL talent. .

Thompson-Robinson pointed out that linebacker Drake Thomas and safety Tanner Ingle were the Wolfpack’s most dangerous weapons when it came to defense, leading them in tackles and combining 17.0 tackles for losses, four interceptions and five breakouts. . NC State has forced 15 interceptions this season, and Thompson-Robinson said he knew he was going to have to be very careful in his decision making to accommodate that.

“Really, a really good talented team out there at the back and can really hurt you that way,” said Thompson-Robinson. “They are leading the interceptions so I absolutely have to be wary of where I pick my spots and where I choose to go with the ball.”

The Bruins are 5-3 over the past two years when Thompson-Robinson threw no interceptions, 4-2 when he threw one, and 1-1 when he threw two. Perhaps the most telling metric is how UCLA handles the ball, going 8-1 when rushing for over 200 and 7-0 when going for over 225 this season.

Brown will be back in that rushing attack after missing the last two games of the regular season with injury. Although he didn’t arrive on campus until 2020 after transferring from Duke, Brown said he knew entering the pitch in a UCLA jersey for the last time on Tuesday would be a special feeling. .

“It’s an exciting feeling to have one more to end my college career, something I’ve been looking forward to for the past few weeks,” said Brown. “Going over there in San Diego, having everyone’s family there is going to load us up.”

UCLA arrived in San Diego and checked into the team hotel on Friday night, and after a few team activities like Sea World and the San Diego Zoo over Christmas weekend, they’ll give it a go. kickoff against NC State Tuesday at 5 p.m. at Petco Park.

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