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SAN DIEGO — History is at stake as N.C. State makes its way to the West Coast.
The Wolfpack (9-3) will face Pac-12 foe UCLA (8-4) in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, California at Petco Park on Dec. 28 at 8 p.m. ET as they attempt to finish with 10 wins for the first time since 2002.
Despite missing out on its first ACC title game berth, N.C. State, which finished the regular season ranked No. 18 in the CFP Rankings, can still win 10 games for only the second time in program history after finishing the regular season undefeated at home for the first time since 1986.
This is NC State's 34th bowl appearance (17-15-1) and its first in the Holiday Bowl.
This season, coach Dave Doeren became the first coach in Wolfpack history to win at least nine games in three seasons.
They'll face a hungry UCLA team appearing in its first bowl game under head coach Chip Kelly and first since 2017. The Bruins' last trip to the Holiday Bowl came in 2012, a 49-26 loss to Baylor.
The USA Today Network sat down with Mike Regalado, the UCLA beat writer at Bruin Report, to get the inside scoop on N.C. State's Holiday Bowl opponent.
USAT: There has been a dramatic uptick in sports cancellations due to COVID-19 in the last month. N.C. State players and staff have taken extra measures over the last few weeks to ensure that there are no positive tests within its program. Has UCLA done anything similar?
Regalado: There is definitely some fear internally just because of what both the men's and women's basketball teams are going through right now in terms of having to cancel games because of COVID-19 protocols. I know that the UCLA football team is taking extra precautions in terms of players being extra aware of where they're going and who they are interacting with. They are taking it very seriously, and especially for the upperclassmen, they really want to play in this bowl game especially after three losing seasons in the Chip Kelly tenure. It seems like they are doing anything they can to limit the spread of COVID-19, but you know, anything can happen. One person gets infected, and boom, it's everywhere.
USAT: How does the UCLA fan base feel about head coach Chip Kelly? He's had three losing seasons before making a bowl game this season. Does that flip the narrative or is the fan base still a little agitated?
Regalado: It's divisive, for sure. There are Chip Kelly supporters and there are people who wanted him fired yesterday, last week, last year. It has been disappointing considering what he did at Oregon, going to a national championship game and then coming to UCLA and doing something completely different. He finally got a winning season this year, but that's still not good enough for a lot of fans. Some of them are expecting that in Year 4, eight wins is underperforming. But I think you have to look at the progression of where he and this team have come from and what he's done to turn this team into what it is now, at least offensively. I think it's probably one of the best offenses in the nation. Defensively, not so much.
USAT: UCLA's defense gives up 28.8 points and almost 400 yards of offense a game. What's been the biggest issue with that side of the ball this season?
Regalado: It's a few things: player development, roster management, players playing out of position. Sometimes you'll see defensive backs playing 10 yards off receivers and you're like 'what are you doing?' They have gotten more aggressive as the season has gone on and the pass rush has been a lot more fierce. They don't really have that one guy in the pash rush who can go out and make the tackles behind the line of scrimmage. I do think this pass defense could struggle against N.C. State's receiving core. I really do think, though, that if this defense got better, UCLA could be an elite team. This team is not that far away from being 10-2 right now. But what-ifs don't count.
USAT: When you talk about the UCLA offense, the first player that everyone thinks about is quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. The senior has completed 176-of-283 passes for 2,409 yards and 21 touchdowns to six interceptions. He's also third on the team in rushing with 609 yards and nine touchdowns on 130 attempts. What makes Thompson-Robinson such a special player?
Regalado: For me, it's the fact that he's a fighter. He got a lot of flack in his first three years with people saying that he wasn't a Division I quarterback because he only played one year of quarterback in high school. But DT-R has grown every single year and this year has been particularly good for him. He's still trying to decide if he'll return for a fifth year. There's actually one UCLA player, defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia, who is sitting out because he's preparing for the NFL Draft. Going back to Thompson-Robinson, though, his decision making has been a lot better. Two years ago he was not very good at securing the ball and had a lot of turnovers. He got better last year and this season has been his best. I think he's developed a little bit of swagger, also, which he needed. He's not overly cocky, but he's starting to believe in his abilities more.
USAT: There's a huge travel difference for N.C. State and UCLA fans as they head to this game in San Diego. With that in mind, do you think Bruins fans will be able to make this feel like a home game?
Regalado: That's a toss-up, because, one, the pandemic has some people really worried about traveling and then being in a packed stadium. Tickets, also, are pretty expensive for this game. But for many fans, this is the first bowl game in a while and they really want to go see this UCLA team play one more time. It's only a two-hour drive, but I'll say this, UCLA fans traditionally don't travel well but there's a reason to celebrate this season. Plus, I think a lot of fans are looking at this as a good reason to get down to San Diego.
USAT: How do you see this game ultimately playing out?
Regalado: I think it's going to be a real fun game, and I think it'll be a shootout. I'll be interested to see how N.C. State's offense distributes the ball on offense. I have a feeling they're going to put up a lot of yards. But I have the same feeling that UCLA will do the same thing on offense. I know N.C. State has been very good defensively against the run but with DT-R and UCLA's running backs, including Zach Charbonnet, who has had seven 100-yard games this season, this offense can be pretty special. I would also not put it past Chip Kelly to do something completely different with new formations that we've never seen before this year. Expect the unexpected with Chip Kelly.
USAT: Can you give us a score?
Regalado: UCLA 41, NC State 40.
NC State podcast
You can listen to the entire conversation with Mike Regalado at the link below. Included in the podcast is an in-depth discussion with USA Today Network recruiting reporter Chapel Fowler, who breaks down N.C. State's 2022 early signing day class.
Podcast link: https://bleav.com/shows/nc-state/page/2/
Listen on Apple: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/episode-6-holiday-bowl-preview-and-early-signing-day-recap/id1593058105?i=1000545825164
Listen on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/0818tvjo5h0hmiaeSHoy4B
David Thompson is an award-winning reporter for the USA Today Network covering NC State and Duke athletics. He can be reached at email@example.com, at 828-231-1747, or on Twitter at @daveth89.
This article originally appeared on The Fayetteville Observer: Scouting NC State football's Holiday Bowl opponent, UCLA