Holiday, celebrate? UCLA could make the season a smashing success with a bowl win
Exactly four months after opening one of the more puzzling seasons in school history, some answers should finally emerge for UCLA.
Or are the Bruins back to making fans wonder where they might be headed, their progress darkened by an inability to beat any team that finished its season with a winning record?
Resolution should come in emphatic fashion Tuesday evening in the Holiday Bowl at Petco Park, where the Bruins will face No. 18 North Carolina State with an opportunity to produce the sort of statement their coach was unwilling to make.
While Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren acknowledged the chance to notch a meaningful victory and create offseason momentum — all standard bowl pablum — Kelly issued his usual contrarian fare about having a really good Tuesday.
“This is our Super Bowl, so we can say it’s our Holiday Bowl and we’re excited,” Kelly said Monday afternoon during a coaches news conference. “This is the next opportunity for this team to play and we don’t worry about making statements, we don’t talk about what the impact of what the win does or the impact of ‘this’ does; it’s an opportunity for this group to play one last game together and they truly love each other and it’s a brotherhood and they’re excited about that opportunity.”
Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s mother has helped the embattled UCLA quarterback navigate criticism. Now he’s pushing for a bowl win over NC State.
Given the tenuous circumstances amid a landscape in which bowls are getting canceled across the country, even hours before kickoff, the game could be dubbed the Hold-Your-Breath Bowl. UCLA defensive back Qwuantrezz Knight and offensive lineman Atonio Mafi are among the Bruins not expected to play while stuck in COVID-19 protocols.
UCLA defensive lineman Jay Toia also intimated he would not play, wishing good luck on Twitter to his “brothers” playing in the game. Kelly said any players who developed symptoms before kickoff would be tested to make sure they did not have the virus.
“We’ve still got our fingers crossed,” Kelly said, “that we’ll have everybody” else.
The first football game played in the 17-year history of Petco Park could have some major implications for the Kelly era. A triumph would give UCLA its first victory over a team with a winning record in 2021 while also awarding the Bruins (8-4) a fourth consecutive victory, their longest winning streak under Kelly.
It could also allow UCLA to finish a season nationally ranked for the first time under Kelly, largely offsetting the disappointment of not contending in the Pac-12 South after conference losses to Arizona State, Oregon and Utah.
As a bonus, the Bruins could momentarily recapture the Southern California sports spotlight hogged by USC since the hiring of coach Lincoln Riley.
Kelly seemed unusually relaxed on the eve of the game, even joking with his N.C. State counterpart about the status of Wolfpack star offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu.
“Did he leave early? No?” Kelly said, gazing at Doeren with a smile. “Opt-outs are a thing that goes on during bowl games; I’m not suggesting somebody should, but it would have made our Christmas a little better.”
UCLA should have a decided home-field advantage as part of the smallest crowd in Holiday Bowl history. A bowl spokesman said a crowd of around 32,000 was expected inside a stadium that seats 41,000, guaranteeing a record low even if it comes with an asterisk given the capacity limitations.
The previous low came in 1992, when the game between Illinois and Hawaii drew only 44,457. (USC’s game against Iowa in 2019, the last played at SDCCU Stadium, drew 50,123.) Surging COVID-19 cases, chilly weather and an N.C. State fan base traveling across the country will all contribute to the low turnout Tuesday.
The Wolfpack (9-3) will be designated the home team, wearing red, while UCLA will be in its whites. It will be the first bowl game for almost everybody on the Bruins’ roster except for a handful of transfers and fifth- and sixth-year players.
“Definitely a special moment,” UCLA senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson said. “I just couldn’t be happier for this team from where we’ve come from and where we started at to now.”
With Qwuantrezz Knight out of the Holiday Bowl because of a positive coronavirus test, UCLA wonders if anyone else will fall into COVID-19 protocols.
Kelly said UCLA’s first postseason appearance since the 2017 Cactus Bowl qualified as a reward for players who have endured one setback after another since the pandemic halted spring practice in March 2020.
“Our goal was to spend Christmas together,” Kelly said, alluding to bowl preparations, “and we got a chance to do that.”
The Bruins have fed beluga whales at SeaWorld and toured a naval aircraft carrier. Can they log what would easily be the best victory of 2021?
That would go a long way toward determining whether it will be a season to remember.
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