Just hours before kickoff, Tuesday’s SDCCU Holiday Bowl between UCLA and North Carolina State at Petco Park was abruptly called off due to COVID-19 issues within the Bruins football 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. “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 university said only that the team was withdrawing “due to COVID-19 protocols within the Bruins’ program.” Details of the COVID issues were not released. Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports reported that the UCLA defensive line was “decimated” by COVID.
It initially appeared that the game was canceled, but Holiday Bowl officials indicated Tuesday evening that the game could possibly be rescheduled with a different opponent for the Wolfpack.
“The entire SDCCU Holiday Bowl family is heartbroken that we were not able to play the bowl game tonight. We do not want to cancel the game officially until we have exhausted every opportunity to find a replacement team, and we are working closely with Boo Corrigan and his great athletics staff at NC State,” SDCCU Holiday Bowl CEO Mark Neville said.
The North Carolina State football program, on its Twitter account, stated, “Heartbroken to not be able to compete one more time this season. We were informed a short time ago that our opponent would be unable to play this evening.”
The announcement came around 12:30 p.m., just hours ahead of the 5 p.m. kickoff of the 43rd annual Holiday Bowl.
NC State head coach Dave Doeren, speaking to reporters in San Diego, expressed frustration at the last-minute cancellation, suggesting UCLA should have been more open about the possibility of a COVID disruption.
“Felt lied to, to be honest,” Doeren told reporters, according to ESPN. “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.”
In a statement posted on Twitter, Jarmond said the decision to pull out of the game was made following COVID testing results on Tuesday. Those results prompted the team’s medical staff to deem it “unsafe for us to compete.”
“While we had isolated COVID challenges, we were still in a position to compete up until today,” he said. “I am truly disappointed for everyone who was involved with the game — student athletes, fans and staff from both UCLA and NC State that traveled to San Diego. Thank you to everyone for your support and understanding.”
The game was going to be the first football game ever played at Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres.
The sale of SDCCU Stadium — where the Holiday Bowl had been played since its inaugural edition in 1978 through 2019 — to San Diego State University in 2020, and its demolition to make way for a west campus and Aztec Stadium, left the bowl game without a home.
The San Diego Padres announced a partnership with the San Diego Bowl Game Association in July allowing the Holiday Bowl to be played at Petco Park for a minimum of the next five years, beginning this year, dependent on City Council approval, which was granted later in July, overturning a previous ban on football at the downtown baseball stadium.
The Holiday Bowl would be the fifth bowl game to be canceled due to COVID-19 issues, following the Arizona, Fenway, Military and Hawaii bowls. Two others — the Gator and Sun bowls — had to change their matchups because of the coronavirus.
The game was expected to be the first time an Atlantic Coast Conference team had played in the Holiday Bowl. Under an agreement announced in 2019, the ACC will supply a team for the game at least through 2025. The agreement was supposed to begin with the 2020 game, which was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Big Ten Conference had supplied a team from 2014-19. The Pac-12 Conference has supplied a team for each game since the 1998 game.
The Holiday Bowl gets the third selection among Pac-12 Conference teams, with the Rose Bowl getting the conference champion and the Alamo Bowl getting the second choice. The Holiday Bowl is in a group with the Cheez-It Bowl and Gator Bowl that have the first picks among Atlantic Coast Conference teams following the New Year’s Six bowls.
It was scheduled to be UCLA’s second appearance in the Holiday Bowl. The Bruins lost to Baylor, 49-26, in the 2012 game.
UCLA (8-4) was heading into the game on a three-game winning streak. This season was the first time since 2015 the Bruins have won at least eight games in a season. The last time they won more than eight games was 2014.
It was also going to be UCLA’s first bowl appearance since 2017 when it lost to Kansas State, 35-17, in the Cactus Bowl. UCLA’s bowl record is 16-19-1, including losses in its last two bowl games.
North Carolina State (9-3) has won four of its last five games. The Wolfpack were 18th in most recent Associated Press poll, which was released Dec. 5, three spots higher than the previous week. UCLA is unranked.
North Carolina State’s appearance would have been its seventh bowl appearance in eight seasons. It has a 17-15-1 bowl record, including losses in its last two bowl games.
It would have been the third meeting between the teams. UCLA won 21-12 in 1959 and 7-0 in 1960. The 1960 game was the last time the Wolfpack played in California before the Holiday Bowl.
The teams did not have a common opponent in 2021.