The Holiday Bowl in San Diego gives us another opportunity to watch a match-up of two teams that have little to no history against each other. UCLA rarely ventures to ACC territory, and the North Carolina State Wolfpack don’t have much of a history against the Pac-12. This game is two teams whose strengths match on both sides of the ball. With so much newness in the match-up we give you the UCLA vs NC State preview.
Meet The Bruins
The Bruins are in their first bowl game since 2017, and the first during the Chip Kelly era. This is also the first winning season for UCLA in Kelly’s four years. The Bruins have not won a bowl game since 2013 when Jim Mora was the coach. They come into the game 8-4 overall and 6-3 in the conference. They finished tied for second in the Pac-12 South with Arizona State.
You cannot start any conversation about UCLA without discussing who will not be there. Starting defensive back Qwauntrezz Knight has tested positive for Covid and will miss the game. He is one of the vocal leaders of the team, and one of the leading tacklers and his presence will be missed on and off the field. Starting defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia has nagging injuries and since he has declared for the NFL, he will sit out to tend to his physical well-being. Offensive lineman Atonio Mafi will miss the game with game with Covid. Reserve running back Ethean Fernea and defensive lineman Tyler Manoa missed Friday’s practice and are presumed out for Tuesday’s game.
As for those who will be there it is an offense that found its groove over the last three games of the season against non-bowl teams. The UCLA ground game is now averaging 215 yards per game. Both Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown are believed to be healthy in advance of the game. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson had three of his most efficient games in the back part of the season. He was 68% on his passing over the last three weeks against Colorado, USC, and Cal with seven touchdowns against three interceptions over that stretch.
The offensive line has done its job protecting Thompson-Robinson, as they sit at 46th in the country in sacks allowed. With all of that put together, the Bruins are 13th in the country in third down conversions. It is a big game for the offense. This will be the last college game for Brown, and for offensive lineman Paul Grattan. It is also completely conceivable that it is the last one for Charbonnet, Thompson-Robinson, tight end Greg Dulcich, offensive lineman Sean Rhyan, and receiver Kyle Philips.
The challenges for UCLA continue to be with Jerry Azzinaro’s defense. For the fourth year under Kelly and his defensive coordinator, the Bruins are statistically one of the worst passing defenses in the country. With the pass rusher Ogbonnia being out, as well as defensive back Knight, the task at hand is going to be even more daunting. The Bruins have had a good year keeping rushing games in check, but most of the teams they have played have been poor running teams all season long.
There is also the unknown about what happens on fourth down. Punter Luke Akers is gone in the transfer portal. Place kicker Nicholas Barr-Mira has been practicing his punting skills. Knowing Kelly, the Bruins will just go for it on fourth down as much as possible.
Meet The Wolfpack
North Carolina State comes into the game 9-3 overall and 6-2 in ACC play. The Wolfpack finished second in the Atlantic division.
Big Time Defense
They bring a game that is balanced on both sides of the ball. Remember when we told you that UCLA’s offense is 14th in the SP+ rankings? Well NC State’s defense is ranked in that exact same place. Remember when we told you UCLA’s offense is 13th in the country in third down conversions? NC State’s defense is ranked fifth in the country in stopping third down conversions. The match-up is completely even in paper. That Wolfpack passing defense is also third in the ACC and second in the conference in points allowed. Linebacker Drake Thomas is leading the team in tackles with just over eight per game.
In a conference where the quarterbacks were the storyline more often than not, NC State’s Devin Leary was as consistent and efficient as any. The third-year sophomore completed nearly 65% of his passes throughout the season for 3,433 yards. He also had 35 touchdowns against just interceptions. He is not the running threat that Thompson-Robinson is, but he is top 20 in the country in passing efficiency. His numbers put him 24th in the country in total offense.
It is a little easier to sit back there when you have Ikem “Ickey” Ekwonu in front of you. The 6-4, 320-pound offensive linemen is the best in the ACC, and among the most elite in the country. He was first team FWAA All-American and a finalist for the Outland Trophy. He is the best opposing team offensive lineman UCLA will have faced all season.
Dave Doeren is completing his ninth season at the helm of NC State. He is 64-49 during that time. The Holiday Bowl will be his seventh bowl game with North Carolina State.
There are no reports of any NC State players expected to miss the game.
The Bowl Game
The Holiday Bowl has drawn an average of 51,917 over the last decade. It is one of the better attended non-playoff bowl games each year. San Diego currently has no football stadium. Qualcomm is in the dust bin of history. San Diego State has been playing its “home games” in Carson as their new stadium is built. So, this year’s Holiday Bowl will be played at Petco Park, home of the Padres baseball team. For baseball the stadium holds 41,000. With adjustments for this game, it will hold around 50,000.
We asked a spokesman for the bowl last week how ticket sales were going. He described them as strong but said the bowl tends to get a significant portion of its ticket sales over the last 48 hours before the game.
Both teams got a 5,000-ticket allocation. We did not get a response from NC State on how their sales were going. UCLA’s athletic department spokesman refused to provide sales figures, telling us, “Providing sales figures for tickets is competitive information from a business perspective.” He did add that the school was almost sold out of what he called a 4,900-ticket allocation. We’re not sure where the other hundred went that the bowl committee says they got.
The game starts at 5pm Pacific time and is on ESPN. The area is forecast to have a week full of rain, except on gameday.