North Carolina State has come a long way the past couple of seasons, and now the program is on the verge of just its second season with a double-digit win total.
So traveling across the country to face UCLA in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 28 at San Diego seems like another challenge worth accepting.
“We want to make history, leave a legacy,” NC State linebacker Drake Thomas said. “This team is special and it would be a special way to end the season.”
NC State (9-3) won its last two regular-season games, including a remarkable comeback in the final two minutes to knock off rival North Carolina on Nov. 26. Most of the Wolfpack’s key players have announced that they’ll be on board next season, already boosting expectations for 2022.
“I think it says a lot,” NC State quarterback Devin Leary said. “It goes to prove that guys on this team aren’t satisfied with what we’ve accomplished this year. Guys want to come back and prove how much better we can be.”
UCLA (8-4) has been on an upward trend as well, and the bus ride down California’s Interstate 5 is another chance for the Bruins to show what their program is headed in the right direction.
Bruins coach Chip Kelly said the regular season was good enough “to get us in this situation to get to play football in December.” The winning record came after five consecutive losing seasons, the last three under Kelly.
Kelly has been on the sideline for the Holiday Bowl in the past as an assistant coach at Oregon. He’s hoping for a home-field type of atmosphere for the Bruins.
“We’re excited that a lot of our fans can get there,” Kelly said of the game, which will be played in San Diego’s Petco Park, a baseball stadium.
UCLA has many San Diego-area players, including leader receiver Kyle Phillips. He caught 10 touchdown passes this season and had 739 yards on 59 catches.
“He has given us everything,” Kelly said. “He is a really tough matchup and he comes up big in big games.”
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has thrown for 21 touchdowns with six interceptions. Although he is eligible to return next season, rumors have swirled that it could be Thompson-Robinson’s last game in a Bruins uniform after four seasons, with transfer QB Dillon Gabriel of UCF waiting in the wings.
“He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve been around,” Kelly said of Thompson-Robinson. “I think he has played his best football in the last three games. We hope he can continue to grow in this last one.”
NC State’s defense is ready for the challenge from a dual-threat quarterback.
“Defensively, we’ll be healthier than we were in the last game,” coach Dave Doeren said. “(Safety) Devan Boykin is back with us now. We hoped that we would have him.”
Leary threw for 3,433 yards with 35 touchdowns and five interceptions for the Wolfpack during the regular season. Emeka Emezie has been his top target, making 60 catches for 802 yards and six touchdowns.
NC State’s only season with double-digit victories came in 2002, going 11-3 behind QB Philip Rivers. In a San Diego connection, Rivers went out to a stellar career with the Chargers and was with the team when it moved to Los Angeles in 2017.
“We want to go win,” Wolfpack center Grant Gibson said. “We’re not taking this game lightly.”
Highly-regarded UCLA defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia is skipping the game in advance of the NFL Draft.
The only previous NC State-UCLA football meetings came with UCLA winning home games in 1959 and 1960.
–Field Level Media