Wolfpack ‘heartbroken,’ Pirates ‘positive’ after bowl cancellations

NC State was hoping to earn its 10th win in the Holiday Bowl, while ECU views the Military Bowl game preparation as critical to the program’s future

While quarterback Holton Ahlers and East Carolina didn't get to play in the canceled Military Bowl, coach Mike Houston believes the pre-bowl experience will help the Pirates take a step forward as a program. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

NC State and East Carolina both had their season-ending football bowl games canceled when their respective opponents pulled out because of COVID protocols.

But that’s where the similarities between their situations end.

As a young, building program looking to end a frustrating seven-year postseason drought, the Pirates were able to accomplish one of their primary goals for 2021 simply by being invited to the Military Bowl — where they were scheduled to play Boston College on Dec. 27.

The Wolfpack, on the other hand, was left with unfinished business a day later when UCLA pulled out of its Holiday Bowl date less than four hours before kickoff.

It was a disappointing turn of events that denied State an opportunity to reach double-digit victories in a season for only the second time in school history and had coach Dave Doeren boiling over with anger because of the timing of the cancellation and the circumstances that led to it.

“Our team has done everything right. We have 100% of our team vaccinated,” Doeren 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.”

Doeren said that he and his players “felt lied to” because UCLA did not disclose the severity of its COVID-related issues until it was too late to reschedule the game or find a replacement opponent the way Wake Forest did at the Gator Bowl and Washington State did at the Sun Bowl.

The Bruins, whose men’s and women’s basketball teams also had to have games canceled because of the virus, reportedly knew the game was in jeopardy but continued to participate in pre-bowl activities — including a Christmas Day trip to SeaWorld of which video showed players wearing their masks improperly.

Before leaving San Diego, the Wolfpack was presented with the championship trophy by Holiday Bowl officials, a gesture Doeren interpreted as a forfeit that allowed his team to claim its 10th win of the season.

Even though the NCAA doesn’t recognize it as such.

Official or not, the “win” and the trophy are only a minor salve for the pain that lingers from being denied the opportunity to earn that victory on the field.

“(We’re) really hurt,” linebacker Drake Thomas said shortly after the game was called. “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.”

ECU’s players were just as disappointed over not being able to play one final time this season.

But unlike the Wolfpack, who they’re scheduled to play in their 2022 season opener next September, coach Mike Houston and his team had a silver lining to their dark cloud.

Not only did the Pirates win four of their final five games to finish with a winning record at 7-5 and earn their first postseason bid since the Birmingham Bowl following the 2014 season, but they also got a lot out of the experience even though they weren’t able to take the field and play.

They spent Christmas Day taking in the sights of Washington, D.C., including a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and participated in a community service project in which the players put together care packages to send to deployed military members overseas.

The biggest benefit, however, was the extra three weeks of practice time the team got in preparation for the game.

“That development has been critically missed in this program, so that’s been a big positive of this,” Houston said. “Everybody knows we’re not going to play the game, but just the experience of being here for a bowl week is so critical for our program because the kids in this program have never experienced this.

“You could talk to them about what a bowl is like, but they’ve never experienced anything like this. So just a taste of this is critical for the future of our program, especially with a roster so young. It’s only going to benefit us moving forward. So I think this season and postseason was a tremendous next step for our program.”