UCLA COVID issues cancel Holiday Bowl only hours before kickoff

NC State is disappointed after missing out on a chance to win a 10th game in a season for only the second time in school history

NC State football coach Dave Doeren and his team got disappointing news on Tuesday when its Holiday Bowl game against UCLA was canceled because of a COVID outbreak among the Bruins (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

NC State’s bid for the second 10-win season in school history came to an end less than four hours before it was scheduled to start.

The Wolfpack’s Holiday Bowl game against UCLA became the latest postseason casualty on Tuesday when the Bruins pulled out, citing COVID protocols that left them without enough healthy players to field a team.

The cancellation was the fifth of the current bowl season and the fourth involving an ACC team. 

It was an unexpected turn of events that left coach Dave Doeren and his team “really sad, mad, angered and confused” because of the timing of the announcement and the circumstances surrounding UCLA’s decision to not to play.

“(We) felt lied to, to be honest,” Doeren said during an impromptu press conference in San Diego shortly after the game was called. “We felt like UCLA probably knew something was going on with their team but didn’t tell anybody on our side. We had no clue that they were up against that. 

“I don’t feel like it was very well handled from their university. It would have been great to have a heads up that this could happen. Maybe two or three days ago we could have found a Plan B. It’s disappointing.”

Tuesday’s game day cancellation came just 24 hours after UCLA coach Chip Kelly said that his team was motivated to play the game, even if it was down to just 11 players.

It also came three days after a team visit to SeaWorld on Christmas Day, an outing at which players could be seen on video posted by the Bruins’ official social media account wearing masks around their chins rather than covering their noses and mouths.

It’s somewhat ironic that the Holiday Bowl was scheduled to be played in a baseball stadium — San Diego’s Petco Park — because the events that led to the game being called off were hauntingly similar to the frustrating way State’s baseball season came to an end.

Only instead of finding out the bad news in the middle of the night, as coach Elliott Avent’s Wolfpack did before its scheduled national semifinal game at the College World Series, Doeren and the football team were let down as they prepared to board buses for the trip to the stadium.

The football team is the fourth from UCLA to have games affected by COVID, joining the Bruins’ men’s and women’s basketball teams and gymnastics team.

“Our team has done everything right. We have 100% of our team vaccinated,” the Wolfpack coach said, adding that he was “heartbroken” for his players, especially the team’s seniors. “Last year we played every game we could play. This year we played every game we could play. We were prepared to play this game. Our opponent wasn’t, apparently. 

“It’s disappointing. A lot went into the finish of the season and a 10th win. We would have won the game. There’s no doubt about it with the way our guys prepared. It’s tough.”

What made the situation all the more frustrating is that nobody bothered to tell the team that it wouldn’t be playing. 

“I found out through Twitter,” linebacker Drake Thomas said. “It was kind of unreal. You figure you get through the whole week and you’re going to play. You wake up on game day and you’re getting ready to go eat the pregame meal. It’s set in stone that you’re playing. To see that, it was disheartening. My heart dropped.”

Thomas said that he and his teammates, despite being heartbroken, were still hopeful that a substitute matchup can be arranged against another team whose bowl won’t be played, either in San Diego or someplace else.

“Whatever opportunity presents itself, I’m all in,” he said.

While that’s clearly a longshot, State athletic director Boo Corrigan said that he began the process of searching for a new opponent or venue immediately after learning that Tuesday’s game wouldn’t be played.

He didn’t say how long the team would stay in California.

“That’s the hard part,” he said. “It’s trying to figure out who’s available, who’s still around. People have been canceled out of games and then they let (everyone) go. They’re trying to reconvene. We’re going to do everything we can to try to find a game.”

Holiday Bowl administrators, in a post on Twitter, indicated that they are also still holding out hope that a game involving NC State can be played.

“We do not want to cancel the game officially until we have exhausted every opportunity to find a replacement team,” the post said, “and we are currently working closely with Boo Corrigan and his great staff to do so.”

The Wolfpack went 9-3 during the regular season and are ranked 18th in the nation. With a win against UCLA, this year’s team would join the 2002 squad as the only ones in school history to reach double-digit wins in a season.

In addition to the Holiday Bowl, the Military, Hawaii, Fenway and Arizona bowls have all been canceled because of COVID outbreaks that left at least one team without enough available players. The Sun and Gator bowls were forced to find replacement teams when one of their original participants was forced to opt out.

Among the teams unable to play are ACC members Boston College (Military Bowl against East Carolina), Virginia (Fenway Bowl against SMU) and Miami (Sun Bowl).