After years of disappointment, UCLA bowled over by chance to show its growth
Bowl games would come on and the television would go off. Bo Calvert couldn’t take it.
For one year, then a second and a third, the torture continued for the UCLA linebacker. Going home for the holidays meant there was no more football to be played except by those other teams on television.
“There’s a stretch where it’s every day, you turn on the TV and maybe just wanna watch ESPN for fun and all of a sudden there’s a bowl game and you’re like, ‘Ah dang,’ ” Calvert said Friday. “Definitely some times I turned the TV off and maybe just went on a hike or something, went out to dinner or whatever. It’s too tough to see those things.”
His teammates felt the same way. They exchanged text messages lamenting their plight, reminding one another that they could be the ones grabbing the attention. As one losing season blended into another, the players discussed what they needed to do to become the envy of everyone stuck at home.
UCLA will play its first three games — and five of its first six — at the Rose Bowl next season as part of a home-heavy schedule.
It’s no longer wishful thinking.
Barring a COVID-19 disruption like the ones that have ensnared the school’s basketball teams, the Bruins (8-4) will hog the national spotlight for a few hours when they face No. 18 North Carolina State (9-3) in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 28 at Petco Park in San Diego.
It will be UCLA’s first bowl game since the 2017 Cactus Bowl and the first postseason appearance for nearly the entire roster except a few fifth- and sixth-year players plus a handful of transfers who played in bowls elsewhere.
It will also be the first time that Calvert hasn’t spent the holidays at his Westlake Village home. Sorry, Mom and Dad, there’s something else that must be done.
“While everybody else is at home doing things,” Calvert said, “we’ll be out here grinding and taking pride in that, being able to be a guy who’s showing up every day, who’s gonna be working and be able to show that on game day, and we’re excited to do that.”
The game is so meaningful to the Bruins that no one has opted out solely to focus on NFL draft preparations; among the team’s starters, only defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia will not play while rehabilitating an injury.
As UCLA began its bowl preparations in earnest, focusing on North Carolina State quarterback Devin Leary’s otherworldly efficiency (35 touchdowns to only five interceptions), monster offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu (who’s so good that Bruins coach Chip Kelly joked that he checked every day to see whether Ekwonu had opted out of the game) and kicker returner Zonovan “Bam” Knight (who returned a kickoff for a touchdown in back-to-back games), it was the opponent the Bruins couldn’t see that prompted the most worry.
With coronavirus cases spreading rapidly thanks to the Omicron variant, the UCLA men’s basketball team paused all activities after a second game was canceled and the women’s basketball team canceled a game against Texas Southern. UCLA’s football team has prided itself on being the only Pac-12 Conference team besides Oregon State to play a full slate of games last season but understands there’s no assurances that its luck will hold out.
UCLA’s basketball game against North Carolina on Saturday in Las Vegas has been canceled because of COVID-19 issues within the Bruins’ program.
Kelly said the team held a long meeting Thursday night to address the issue and precautions that each player and coach needed to take. Indoor meetings are held with no one sitting within six feet of one another, and team meetings are staged outdoors.
“Everybody heading into bowl season now is a little nervous because it sounds like it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Kelly said, “so we’ve all got our fingers crossed and we’re all going to do what we can possibly do to stay away from it.”
UCLA’s bowl game also holds major significance for Kelly. Even though he appears to be on the verge of receiving a contract extension, Kelly has not won over an overwhelming majority of the fan base given his 18-25 record at UCLA and the fact that none of his team’s victories this season came against an opponent with a winning record.
Beating N.C. State would change that, and in emphatic fashion.
“Really good football team,” Kelly said of the Wolfpack. “They’re tough, they’re hard-nosed, they’re very disciplined, they’ve got a dynamic kick returner … they’re really well-coached and they’ve got really good players, so we’re excited about the matchup.”
Few are as excited as Calvert, who will be able to watch other bowl games in the coming days without any sort of unease. His Bruins are playing in a bowl as well. They belong among the nation’s best teams. They’ve arrived.
Central Florida transfer Dillon Gabriel committed to UCLA on Thursday, but coach Chip Kelly has some other options when it comes to 2022 quarterbacks.
“Now to be able to say we’ve done that, it’s a testament to the guys we have here, guys who have stuck it out and continued to work,” Calvert said. “And that’s one of the things that I’m really proud of is being able to be surrounded by these guys.
“There’s not a lot of people who are willing to sacrifice years of their time to be able to just have one game and have a big season like this. It doesn’t come just from one year. That’s the kind of guys we have, I’m really proud of that.”
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