2021 Holiday Bowl Preview – UCLA Bruins vs NC State Wolfpack

EVT Sports

Credit: San Diego County News

UCLA Bruins vs. North Carolina State Wolfpack

Petco Park – San Diego, CA

2021 San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl

Kickoff: Tuesday, December 28 @ 5 pm

TV: Fox

Radio: Sirius XM, 1360AM

The UCLA Bruins and the NC State Wolfpack will play in the 43rd annual Holiday Bowl and the first-ever football game played at Petco Park. 

The Wolfpack finished the season 18th in the College Football Playoff rankings, the AP Poll, and the USA Today Coaches Poll. The Bruins, ranked as high as 13th in the AP poll earlier in the season, did not finish in the Top 25 in any of the three major rankings by the season’s end. 

The game will mark only the third meeting all-time between the two teams. UCLA won both previous matchups in 1959 and 1960. 

The Wolfpack finished third in the ACC. They will be the home team and occupy the sideline in the right field area. The “visiting” Bruins placed fourth in the Pac-12. Their sideline will be along the third baseline.

This year also marks the first time an ACC team will play in the Holiday Bowl. Until this year, the game traditionally matched up teams from the Pac-12 and Big-10. 

The Wolfpack are 1.5 point favorites.

UCLA Bruins

City: Los Angeles, CA

Conference: Pac-12

2021 Record: 8-4 (6-3)

The Bruins make their first bowl appearance since 2017 and first under head coach Chip Kelly. In his fourth season at the helm, Kelly found the success the UCLA faithful had hoped for when he was hired. After a highly accomplished four-year tenure at Oregon in the early 2010s, Kelly moved on to the professional coaching ranks, first with the Philadelphia Eagles (three years) and then with the San Francisco 49ers (one year). Kelly’s time in the NFL was tumultuous, to say the least, and he wisely returned to the collegiate ranks. 

UCLA’s season started promising with home victories over Hawaii and LSU, both bowl-eligible teams this year. The victories earned the Bruins a 13th place ranking in the AP Poll. A loss to Fresno State to close out the non-conference schedule, however, derailed their hopes of a memorable season. They were unable to beat a bowl-eligible team in conference play, losing to Arizona State, Oregon, and Utah. 

The Bruins employ a potent run-heavy offense averaging 36.7 points (16th in the FBS), 251.1 rushing yards (16th), and 226.2 (69th) a game. 

Senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson (commonly referred to as “DTR”) led the Bruin offensive attack and enjoyed the best season of his college career. He passed for 2,409 yards (62.2% completion), 21 touchdowns, only six interceptions, and added 609 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground.

Credit: AP Photo

Former UCLA quarterback and current radio color analyst Matt Stevens told EVT this week that DTR is “the hottest quarterback in the country right now and coming off two of the best games of his career.” In those two games against USC and California, DTR threw for 513 yards, rushed for 148 yards, and totaled nine touchdowns. 

Stevens played quarterback at UCLA from 1984 through 1986 and has been the football color analyst on UCLA’s flagship radio station, IMG 1150 AM, for the past 25 years. 

According to Stevens, DTR’s progression into elite status this season is a result of letting the offense come to him and not forcing things. “[His throws] are more on time, have more touch, and he is running when he needs to,” said Stevens. 

Running back Zach Charbonnet (Michigan transfer) rushed for 1,137 yards on 5.6 yards per carry and 13 touchdowns, earning second-team All-Pac-12. Charbonnet, who is 6’1 and weighs 220lbs, is extremely tough to bring down and has great balance. Backup running back Brittain Brown added 616 rushing yards and seven touchdowns.

The top two pass catchers are wide receiver Kyle Philips (59 receptions, 739 yards, and ten touchdowns) and tight end Greg Dulcich (42 receptions, 725 yards, and five touchdowns). Stevens, who used to be the QB coach at Helix High School when former Aztecs quarterback Carson Baker played there, recalls playing against Philips’ San Marcos High School team and thinking, “Wow, this guy [Philips] is going to be awesome.” 

Stevens expects the Wolfpack defense to try and force DTR to beat them with his arm by loading the box and blitzing heavily. It is a game plan that used to work well against the Bruins. Stevens notes, though, that the team’s improvement in blitz pickup has been the key to their turnaround. 

“After the Utah game, [the offense] began throwing bubble screens and swings and making it easier for DTR to not have to stay in the pocket,” Stevens said. UCLA outscored opponents, 148-67, in their three wins to end the season since the Utah game. 

UCLA’s defense allowed 26.8 points per game (75th in FBS), 124.2 rushing yards (26th), and 260.2 passing yards (111th). Cornerback Qwuantrezz Knight led the team with 66 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss but announced on Thursday via Twitter that he will be unable to play in the Holiday Bowl due to COVID-19 protocols. Linebacker Bo Calvert added 7.5 tackles for loss, including a team-high four sacks. Safety Quentin Lake and cornerback Jay Shaw led the team with three interceptions. 

North Carolina State Wolfpack

City: Raleigh, NC

Conference: ACC

2021 Record: 9-3 (6-2)

The Wolfpack will look to reach ten wins for the first time since the 2002 team led by Philip Rivers and just the second time in program history. The game marks the seventh bowl game in head coach David Doeren’s nine-year tenure at the school. Doeren, born at Naval Base Coronado, grew up outside of Kansas City and played tight end at Drake in the early 1990s. 

Doeren began his coaching career immediately after graduating from Drake that now spans 27 years, including stops on the defensive side at Drake, USC, Montana, Kansas, and Wisconsin and two years as head coach at Northern Illinois before joining the Wolfpack as head coach in 2013. 

Credit: NC State Athletics

NC State finished the non-conference schedule 3-1, losing to Mississippi State, 24-10, in their second game of the season. They defeated then 9th-ranked Clemson in late September to start conference play, and their two conference losses to Miami and 17th-ranked Wake Forest were by a combined four points. 

When Stevens watches film of NC State, he sees a very well-coached team in all phases of the game. 

The Wolfpack scored 33.1 points per game (31st in FBS), rushed for 126 yards (100th), and passed for 288.4 yards (19th).

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Devin Leary passed for 3,433 yards (65.7% completion) and 35 touchdowns to just five interceptions (top 10 in the nation in both categories). His 35 passing touchdowns is the most by a quarterback in a single season in program history. He threw for at least four touchdowns in four of the last five games of the season. 

Stevens describes Leary as “a pocket passer who has really good arm talent, is super competitive, goes through his progressions well, and can put the ball on the money.” 

The passing attack is boosted by a talented and tall receiving trio. Emeka Emezie, “a monster on the outside” per Stevens, led the team in catches (60) and yards (802) and was tied for second in touchdowns (six). Emezie almost single-handedly won their game against North Carolina, catching two touchdown passes (64, 24) in the final two minutes of the game as the Wolfpack erased a nine-point deficit to win by four. 

Thayer Thomas led the team with eight receiving touchdowns along with 51 receptions for 596 yards. Devin Carter caught only 31 passes but racked up 556 yards on a team-high 17.9 yards per catch and six touchdowns.

The duo of Zonovan Knight (753 yards and three touchdowns) and Ricky Pearson Jr. (636 yards and five touchdowns) paced the rushing offense, which usually takes a back seat to the passing game.

The best player on the NC State team is junior offensive tackle and consensus first-team All-American, Ikem “Ickey” Ekwonu. Projected as a first-round draft pick by many experts in the 2022 NFL Draft, Ekwonu has yet to make a final decision on whether to declare for the NFL Draft or return for one more season. He leads the team with 63 pancake blocks and 18 knockdowns.

The Wolfpack defense allowed 19.7 points per game (18th in FBS), 124 rushing yards (25th), and 207.6 passing yards (33rd). They also rank sixth with 15 interceptions. Sophomore linebacker Drake Thomas led the team with 99 tackles and three interceptions and was tied for the team lead with six sacks, earning first-team All-ACC honors. He was joined on the first team by defensive tackle Cory Durden and safety Tanner Ingle. 

Keys to Victory

Make Big Plays 

Stevens sees very similar defensive schemes from both teams, playing nickel coverage and bringing tons of pressure with blitzes. In turn, this leaves man-to-man coverage on the outside. “If you can break the blitz and get past the first level, there’s a lot of room [to make big plays],” said Stevens, predicting the game could be won by the team “first to 45 [points].” In this scenario, look for Philips and Emezie to be the x-factors for the Bruins and Wolfpack, respectively, in the game. 

Credit: YouTube

Win Special Teams

In a game likely to be decided by only a few points, the margin of victory might come down to the kicking game. Both schools have excellent special teams units. The Wolfpack scored four special teams touchdowns this season. Zonovan Knight returned kickoffs for touchdowns in consecutive weeks and earned first-team All-ACC. The team added return touchdowns off a blocked punt and a muffed punt. Punter Trenton Gill led the conference with a 45.05 yard per punt average and also earned first-team All-ACC. The Bruins, meanwhile, scored three special teams touchdowns themselves, two on punt returns and one on kickoff. Given how well-coached and prepared both special teams units are, expect a few game-changing plays in this phase of the game that may determine the final result.

Win Turnover Battle

The Wolfpack ranked 18th in FBS with just 11 turnovers this season, and two of the six interceptions were on hail mary throws at the end of a half and game. Six of their 11 turnovers came in two of their three losses (Mississippi State and Wake Forest). The Bruins did a great job protecting the ball as well, only committing 14 turnovers, but half of those (seven) came in their four losses. Whichever team continues to protect the football will improve their chances of winning this game. 

San Diego Connection

NC State

  • None

UCLA

  • Junior wide receiver Kyle Philips attended San Marcos High
  • Freshman tight end Grant Norberg attended Scripps Ranch High
  • Junior defensive back Martell Irby attended Morse High
  • Sophomore defensive back Shamar Martin attended Morse High
  • Freshman wide receiver DJ Justice attended Cathedral Catholic High
    • Younger brother of former Aztec wide receiver JR Justice
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Andre Haghverdian on Email
Andre Haghverdian
Avid sports fan and historian of basketball, baseball, football and soccer. UC San Diego and San Diego State alumni living in America's Finest City. Diverse team following across multiple sports leagues, but Aztecs come first in college athletics.
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