Unable to find replacement opponent, Holiday Bowl officially canceled

NC State's scheduled matchup against UCLA on Tuesday was called off when the Bruins pulled out, citing COVID-19 issues

NC State football coach Dave Doeren accepts the Holiday Bowl championship trophy from game representative Bob Bolinger before he and his team returned home to Raleigh on Wednesday. The Wolfpack's scheduled game against UCLA was canceled because of COVID-19 issues among the Bruins (Courtesy NC State football)

One day after UCLA pulled out of its Holiday Bowl date against NC State, the game at San Diego’s Petco Park has officially been canceled.

The announcement was made Wednesday morning after a frantic last-ditch effort to find a replacement opponent by bowl officials and Wolfpack athletic director Boo Corrigan proved unsuccessful.

“We worked closely with Boo Corrigan and the fantastic NC State athletic staff to find a replacement team for UCLA, but we were unable to do so,” a statement from CEO Mark Neville and President Bob Bolinger posted on the Holiday Bowl’s social media account said. “We are especially heartbroken for our volunteers and staff who spent so much time and effort into planning an incredible festival of events, culminating in a premier bowl game.”

The Wolfpack and Bruins were supposed to play in that game on Tuesday. But it was called off less than four hours before its scheduled 5 p.m. PST kickoff when UCLA, citing a lack of available players because of COVID-19 protocols, decided it couldn’t play the game.

It was the fifth bowl this postseason to be canceled, joining the Military, Hawaii, Fenway and Arizona bowls.

Two other bowls, the Gator and Sun, were forced to reshuffle their matchups when one of their teams pulled out over COVID concerns.

Unlike those games, one of which involves ACC rival Wake Forest, the Holiday Bowl cancellation happened too close to game time for organizers to find another opponent for State to play.

While it could still be feasible for the Wolfpack to fill in as a replacement should another bowl lose a team over the next few days, a statement released by Corrigan on Wednesday all but eliminates that possibility.

“After exhausting every possibility and contacting numerous schools personally and through the Holiday Bowl, we have no other option than to end our season,” Corrigan said. “As disappointing as this stunning turn of events was, we must not let it diminish the accomplishments of our 2021 football team or forget the moments of joy they brought us.

“I commend coach (Dave) Doeren, his staff and especially our players for making great decisions and doing the right things to ensure they were ready to play every week and all the way until yesterday.”

That preparation, combined with the timing of the cancellation and the fact that it cost the Wolfpack an opportunity to reach double-digits wins in a season for only the second time in program history, has only added to the team’s disappointment and frustration.

“I’m heartbroken for these guys,” Doeren said of his players at an impromptu news conference in San Diego on Tuesday.

Before leaving San Diego on Wednesday, Doeren and his team were presented with the championship trophy by Holiday Bowl officials. As such, the school intends to count the game as its 10th win of the season.

But that’s only a minor salve for the pain that remains from being denied the opportunity to earn that victory on the field.

“(We’re) really hurt,” linebacker Drake Thomas added. “That was a milestone for us. That was how we wanted to leave a legacy. That was how we wanted to be remembered, with that 10th win. We can’t overlook the things that we accomplished. Within our team, we knew we were going to go out there and win. They knew it. That’s that.”

Thomas said that he and his teammates were “really emotional, sad, upset, angry,” when they learned the game wouldn’t be played on Twitter, rather than being told directly.

Much of that anger is aimed at UCLA, which is reported to have known about its potential COVID issues days before the decision was made to pull out of the game and whose players could be seen improperly masked in an official team video of their visit to Sea World on Christmas Day.

“We handled our part. We were ready to play,” Thomas said. “They can’t say the same.”