North Carolina State flew home Wednesday with the Holiday Bowl trophy from a game that was never played, the Wolfpack counting it as their 10th victory of the season.
In reality, it continued to be a lose-lose situation for everyone involved.
While UCLA stayed mostly mum on having withdrawn less than five hours before kickoff, bowl officials formalized the game’s cancellation after no replacement team could be found and Wolfpack coaches and officials expressed lingering frustration over what they described as a lack of communication from the Bruins.
UCLA also wasn’t exactly thrilled with the circumstances. One person close to the situation, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly disclose sensitive information, told The Times the Bruins pulled out of the game only after a significant number of positive tests for COVID-19 would have forced some players to play out of position, putting them at increased risk of injury.
It was widely known that UCLA was especially thin along the defensive line. Starter Otito Ogbonnia was rehabilitating an injury; backups Tyler Manoa and Jay Toia posted on social media that they were unable to play; reserves Quentin Sommerville and Sitiveni Havili-Kaufusi have been sidelined all season by injuries; and fellow reserves John Ward and Tyler Kiehne announced their intentions to transfer.
Officially, Bruins officials weren’t saying much a day after the game was canceled in response to emailed questions from The Times about the testing timeline, communication with N.C. State, player availability and why the team’s medical staff deemed it too unsafe to play in the game.
“On Tuesday, medical staff let us know that it was unsafe for student-athletes to compete based on COVID protocols involving a number of players,” UCLA spokesman Scott Markley said in a statement that largely mirrored a tweet the previous day from athletic director Martin Jarmond. “We’re disappointed for everyone that we couldn’t take the field; however, our student-athletes’ health and safety is our top priority.”
UCLA coach Chip Kelly had said on the eve of the game the team’s unvaccinated players had been tested earlier in the week and anyone who developed symptoms would be tested, suggesting multiple players were not feeling well on game day.
After informing N.C. State they would be unable to play, the Bruins departed for Los Angeles on Tuesday afternoon while bowl officials worked furiously but futilely to find a replacement team. When it became clear Wednesday morning that no alternate arrangements could be made to stage the game, bowl officials awarded the trophy to the Wolfpack at their team hotel even though the game was considered a no-contest.
N.C. State athletic director Boo Corrigan told ESPN that Jarmond apologized to him earlier in the day about the situation, but Corrigan said he remained irked that he learned about the Bruins’ withdrawal from Twitter instead of UCLA officials.
Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren said he was irritated the Bruins did not let his team know that not playing was even a possibility.
“We’re upset that they had to have known prior to four hours before the game that this was a possibility, and communication would have been great,” Doeren told ESPN. “Surely they had an idea. A heads-up so we could start calling these other schools that are out there to at least play would have been good.”
UCLA was left to look ahead to a 2022 season that will presumably include Kelly as its coach. Kelly and the school have not agreed to an extension of the contract that ends after next season, but Kelly has hired two defensive assistant coaches in recent weeks, suggesting he intends to return.
The Bruins’ roster for next season is also beginning to take shape. While right tackle Alec Anderson announced on Instagram that he would declare for the NFL draft, defensive linemen Martin Andrus and Tyler Manoa have indicated on social media that they would return in 2022.
If all goes well, they might even get to play in a bowl game.