SAN DIEGO —
They got to feed beluga whales, tour a naval aircraft carrier and see the end zone in a baseball stadium painted in team colors.
They did not get to play football.
About five hours before kickoff, the UCLA Bruins learned their Holiday Bowl matchup against No. 18 North Carolina State on Tuesday evening at Petco Park would not be played because of worsening COVID-19 issues with the Bruins.
Bowl officials later said they did not want to cancel the game until exhausting every opportunity to find a replacement for the Bruins.
The late notice touched off anger and conspiracy theories among the Wolfpack, with coach Dave Doeren describing a lack of communication from UCLA regarding the possibility that the Bruins would be unable to play.
“Felt lied to, to be honest,” Doeren told reporters at the team hotel. “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.”
UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond posted on Twitter the team had been in position to play until Tuesday, when new testing results prompted the Bruins’ medical staff to determine that going forward with the game would be unsafe.
“I am truly disappointed for everyone who was involved with this game,” Jarmond wrote.
The Bruins were particularly thin at defensive line, with Otito Ogbonnia out while recovering from an injury and Tyler Manoa and Jay Toia posting on social media that they would be unavailable. Additionally, defensive back Qwuantrezz Knight and offensive lineman Atonio Mafi were stuck in COVID-19 protocols.
“Can we play 7 on 7?” tweeted Melva Thompson-Robinson, the mother of UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson.
Tweeted Dorian: “This is a terrible way to end such a great year for this team. This is a very special group of guys.”
Barring a replacement team being found quickly, it would be the fifth postseason game canceled because of issues with the virus, joining the Arizona, Fenway, Hawaii and Military bowls. The Gator and Sun bowls are expected to be played in the coming days only after replacement teams agreed to take the spots of those forced to withdraw.
N.C. State players, trying to notch a 10th win for only the second time in the school’s 137 years of football, did not conceal their disappointment.
“Our team has been away from family and friends for a month prepping for this,” Wolfpack backup quarterback Aaron McLaughlin tweeted. “We have been here for 5 days practicing, we’re in a hotel for Christmas just for it to be canceled 5 hours before kickoff? We deserve better.
“At this point it’s not the game, it’s the messed up holidays for literally every single person involved in this, on both ends. UCLA and N.C. State.”
Wolfpack receiver Thayer Thomas suggested on Twitter that the Bruins backed out of the game after voting not to play, an assertion immediately refuted by UCLA players.
“There was no vote on whether we should play or not,” Bruins offensive lineman Paul Grattan Jr. said. “Now dudes are just making stuff up for likes and retweets. My family flew across the country just like yours did. EVERYONE wanted to play this game.”
On the eve of the game, Bruins coach Chip Kelly said his team was trying its best to play despite the challenges presented by the rapidly spreading Omicron variant of the coronavirus that has waylaid college and pro sports around the country.
“Our whole mindset’s always been, if we’ve got 11, we’re going to go play,” Kelly said, referring to the number of players needed on each side of the ball.
Kelly said the team’s unvaccinated players had been tested this week, with additional tests administered to those who developed symptoms before kickoff. The Bruins had long taken preventive measures such as holding meetings outdoors and spacing seats at least six feet apart in their bid to make the school’s first postseason appearance since the 2017 Cactus Bowl.
“We talk to our players a lot about protecting the ecosystem. We’re proud of the fact that we played every single one of our games a year ago, and the credit goes to our players,” Kelly said. “You know, they had to make a lot sacrifices and you have to really be a selfless person to accomplish all of those things, and obviously we’ve had incidents on our campus — our basketball team has had games canceled, our women’s basketball team has had games canceled, so our players have been doing the best job they can with it.”
Deprived of a chance to log what could have been their most impressive victory under Kelly, the Bruins (8-4) will finish their season on a three-game winning streak in which they were playing their best football. They rallied from a 13-point deficit to score 37 unanswered points against Colorado before dropping a record 62 points on rival USC and posting a 42-14 victory over California.
Now the only drama remaining is waiting to learn who will use their remaining eligibility to return. Among the team’s top players, Thompson-Robinson, running back Zach Charbonnet, left tackle Sean Rhyan, wide receiver Kyle Philips and safety Quentin Lake all could opt to come back, driven in part by the chance for a better ending.
“So unfortunate,” Lake tweeted. “Sorry to the fans. Sorry to the whole Bruin Nation. Hate for it to end this way.”