Holiday Bowl canceled due to UCLA COVID-19 protocols
UCLA’s first bowl game of the Chip Kelly era was all for naught.
Tuesday night’s San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl against North Carolina State at Petco Park was canceled just hours before kickoff due to COVID-19 protocols within the Bruins’ program.
“We are extremely grateful to the Holiday Bowl, students, fans, sponsors and the people of San Diego for their support this week,” UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond said in a statement released 4½ hours before the 5 p.m. game.
“We are deeply disappointed for our young men in the football program that worked extremely hard for this opportunity. My heart goes out to them. The health and safety of our students will always be our North Star.”
The Bruins (8-4) were scheduled to take on the No. 18 Wolfpack (9-3) in their first bowl game in four years under Kelly. It was also scheduled to be the first football game played at Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres.
Tuesday’s abrupt announcement came one day after Kelly touted his players’ success rates in fending off the virus during a press conference in San Diego.
“We’re proud of the fact that we played every one of our games a year ago and the credit goes to our players,” said Kelly, whose Bruins were one of two Pac-12 teams that didn’t lose a game on their pandemic-shortened schedule in 2020. “They had to make a lot of sacrifices and you have to be a selfless person to accomplish those things.”
Not as glowing about the Bruins was North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren, who, according to an ESPN report, told a small group of media in San Diego that his team felt misled by UCLA.
“Felt lied to, to be honest,” Doeren said. “We felt like UCLA probably knew something was going on, didn’t tell anybody on our side. We had no clue they were up against that. I don’t feel like it was very well handled from their university. It would have been great to have had a heads-up so two or three days ago we could have found a Plan B. Disappointing.”
Jarmond followed Doeren’s comments with a statement on social media stating “we were still in position to compete up until today” and that the medical staff deemed it unsafe for the team to compete after Tuesday’s COVID results.
With the Bruins unable to play Tuesday, their offseason will begin with roster management as a top priority. Several players have not publicly announced their decisions to stay for another season or declare for the NFL draft.
The announcement dashed what would have been the first bowl appearance for most of the Bruins’ roster, including senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and redshirt junior receiver and San Diego native Kyle Philips, both of whom could be tempted to leave school early for the pros.
“This is a terrible way to end such a great year for this team,” Thompson-Robinson tweeted. “This is a very special group of guys. Thank you to the Bruin community and everyone else who continually supported us.”
Bruce Feldman of The Athletic tweeted that there were issues among the Bruins’ defensive line group.
SOURCES: Tonight’s Holiday Bowl between UCLA & NC State is getting canceled. The Bruins D-Line room has been decimated by Covid issues.
— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) December 28, 2021
The Bruins were already going to be without senior defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia, who declared for the 2022 NFL Draft earlier this month. Ogbonnia had proven to be a durable player for the Bruins over the past four years but cited a season-long injury as a primary factor in his decision to opt out of the Holiday Bowl.
True freshman Jay Toia was expected to start in Ogbonnia’s place but posted a tweet Monday night that indicated the team was going to be playing without him: “Goodluck to all my brothers in San Diego playing in the Holiday Bowl. Bring the dub back to Westwood!!”
Fifth-year senior defensive back Qwuantrezz Knight announced Tuesday he wouldn’t make the trip or play in the bowl game due to COVID protocols. He was fully vaccinated and will begin his preparation for the NFL draft process. Martell Irby, who played at Morse High School in San Diego before joining the Bruins, was expected to start in place of Knight.
The Bruins, who are reportedly 98% vaccinated, took part in most of the bowl week festivities, taking a team trip to Sea World on Christmas Day and a tour of the USS Makin Island aircraft carrier Sunday.
Kelly felt the game would take place, but as of Monday afternoon wasn’t willing to say the team was in the clear during his joint press conference with Doeren.
“It’s an ongoing thing,” Kelly said. “If someone comes down with symptoms they’ll be tested.
“We will test kids up until game time. We don’t have any final numbers but what’s gone on is that our unvaccinated players got tested earlier in the week but anyone that has symptoms will be tested after they report they have symptoms.”
The news Tuesday comes as other college football bowl games across the country have been severely impacted by COVID-19 protocols, some being canceled and others accepting late replacements for teams that have had to withdraw. The Arizona Bowl, Hawai’i Bowl, Fenway Bowl and Military Bowl have also been called off because of COVID-19 issues and two other games were forced to replace at least one participating team.
“I thought it was fake news to be honest,” Doeren told reporters when asked about his reaction to the bowl game being canceled.
Dave Doeren speaks after Holiday Bowl game was canceled after before today’s kickoff. pic.twitter.com/x4moGWjsM0
— David Thompson (@daveth89) December 28, 2021
“Our team has done everything right. We had 100% of our team vaccinated. … We were prepared to play this game but our opponent wasn’t. … I’m heartbroken for these guys.”
Holiday Bowl officials say they will explore all opportunities to potentially reschedule the bowl game and host the Wolfpack.
“We do not want to cancel the game officially until we have exhausted every opportunity to find a replacement team,” Holiday Bowl CEO Mark Neville said. “We are working closely with (Athletic Director) Boo Corrigan and his great athletics staff at NC State.”
Unless the Holiday Bowl can be salvaged, the 2022 Rose Bowl Game, featuring No. 7 Ohio State vs. No. 10 Utah, is the only college football bowl game left to be played in Southern California. The game, a New Year’s tradition in Pasadena, was moved last year to Arlington, Texas, as a result of the pandemic and served as a College Football semifinal playoff game.
This week’s game on Saturday is still expected to be played, according to one official.
“We’re still proceeding as planned and everyone is following their protocols to keep each other safe and healthy,” a Rose Bowl Game spokesperson told the Southern California News Group.
Other Rose Bowl-related events are not happening, however. The media day event, scheduled for Thursday, was canceled last week due to indoor space constraints that will not allow for social distancing. On Monday, the annual Lawry’s Beef Bowl, a Rose Bowl tradition involving the two participating teams, was canceled because of citing COVID-19 concerns.
The Jimmy Kimmel L.A. Bowl, the first of the three bowl games scheduled to be played in Southern California, saw Utah State beat Oregon State, 24-13, in the inaugural edition on Dec. 18 at SoFi Stadium.