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UCLA vs. N.C. State matchups: Bruins should get boost with Brittain Brown’s return

UCLA running back Brittain Brown runs the ball.
UCLA running back Brittain Brown runs the ball during the first half against Hawaii on Aug. 28 at the Rose Bowl.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)
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So you wanna go bowling?

UCLA will find out whether its first postseason appearance in four years is a worthwhile endeavor Tuesday evening in San Diego when it faces No.18 North Carolina State in the Holiday Bowl. The Bruins (8-4) are 1½-point underdogs in what amounts to a home game against the Wolfpack (9-3) given UCLA’s two-hour interstate drive as opposed to a cross-country flight.

A record-low crowd of about 32,000 in the first football game in Petco Park history could encounter equally dreary conditions, the forecast calling for temperatures in the low 50s and a 40% chance of rain at kickoff.

Here is an examination of the top story lines and matchups:

Run for it

UCLA’s top-flight running game should get a considerable boost with the return of Brittain Brown from the injury that has sidelined him since late in the Bruins’ 44-20 victory over Colorado on Nov. 13.

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Brown has rushed for 616 yards and seven touchdowns this season, averaging 6.0 yards per carry and making him a hard-charging complement to Zach Charbonnet, the Bruins’ workhorse who has rushed for 1,137 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Even with a full complement of running backs, UCLA will face one of its toughest challenges of the season in an N.C. State run defense that ranks No. 24 nationally, allowing just 124 yards rushing per game as part of a defense that gives up only 19.7 points per game.

The future path of UCLA could be revealed if the Bruins are able to handle No. 18 North Carolina State on Tuesday at the Holiday Bowl in San Diego.

Santa’s helpers?

For all the holiday hand-wringing over embattled UCLA defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro the last few weeks, the Bruins’ defense has been a primary factor in the team’s recent success.

UCLA has allowed just 22.3 points per game during its three-game winning streak, shutting out Colorado in the second half of a comeback victory and holding down USC during a historic beatdown.

Of course, the Bruins have not faced an offense as potent as N.C. State’s over that stretch; the Wolfpack average 33.1 points, No. 28 nationally.

California running back Christopher Brooks is stopped by UCLA defensive back Quentin Lake and linebacker Carl Jones Jr.
California running back Christopher Brooks is stopped by UCLA defensive back Quentin Lake (37) and linebacker Carl Jones Jr. (35) on Nov. 27 at the Rose Bowl.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Homecomings galore

The Bruins will make themselves at home beyond the natural geographic advantage.

Wide receiver Kyle Philips, linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath and defensive back Martell Irby hail from the San Diego area. All are expected to start in the bowl game, including Irby, who will be thrust into a prominent role with fellow defensive back and leading tackler Qwuantrezz Knight sidelined because of COVID-19 protocols.

“I really just feel like this is our way to send our seniors and everybody leaving off well,” Irby said.

Philips is the Bruins’ leading receiver and punt returner, and Genmark Heath, a graduate transfer from Notre Dame, has established himself as a team leader in just one season in Westwood.

“I have a lot of family coming in, family friends, a lot of people who have helped me on the way get me to the point that I am today,” Genmark Heath said, “so it’s going to be nice to give them tickets, have them all cheering to see kind of where I am today. And there’s no better place than San Diego.”

Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s mother has helped the embattled UCLA quarterback navigate criticism. Now he’s pushing for a bowl win over NC State.

Feeling special

N.C. State’s Zonovan “Bam” Knight returned kickoffs of 100 and 97 yards for touchdowns in back-to-back weekends this season, making him a huge worry for UCLA.

It also led to the unofficial nickname of “Bam-Bam.”

The Bruins will be without starting punter Luke Akers after he entered the transfer portal, making walk-on Nicholas Barr-Mira the likely successor.


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