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March Madness: Sweet 16 runs

UCLA football seeks to surmount limited postseason experience during Holiday Bowl

Senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson takes a snap in UCLA football’s win over California on Nov. 27. Thompson-Robinson and the Bruins will take on No. 18 North Carolina State on Tuesday in the Holiday Bowl. (Chelsea Westman/Daily Bruin staff)


No. 18 North Carolina State
Tuesday, 5 p.m.

Petco Park

By Jon Christon

Dec. 27, 2021 11:45 a.m.

Almost exactly four years ago, the blue and gold played in the Cactus Bowl.

Coach Chip Kelly had just been hired a month prior and senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson was still in high school. For the next three seasons, the team endured losing campaigns.

But in their fourth season since that game, the Bruins are back in the postseason.

“It’s definitely a surreal moment just to be in this position,” Thompson-Robinson said. “I just couldn’t be more happier for this team from where we’ve come from and where we started at to now.”

UCLA football (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12) is set to take on No. 18 North Carolina State (9-3, 6-2 ACC) in the Holiday Bowl at Petco Park on Tuesday night. The game will mark the team’s first bowl game appearance since its 18-point loss to Kansas State in 2017 and its second bowl appearance in the past six seasons.

But while the vast majority of the roster – including the starting signal-caller – lack any postseason experience, a select few have previously played in bowl games.

One such player is redshirt senior linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath, who played in a bowl game in each of his three seasons with Notre Dame, including a College Football Playoff semifinal in 2018 – a game in which he tallied two tackles.

Genmark Heath said he’s been telling his teammates to use the time off between the regular season and the postseason valuably, adding that the veterans on the team have a leg up in that regard.

“When you’re playing for a bowl game at the end, whatever bowl game it is, it’s different – it’s a longer season. You have some time off, we get some time to recover, (to) self-evaluate yourself,” Genmark Heath said. “Some of the other guys who are a little bit older, we’ve been in situations like this and it’s just another game for us.”

However, the Bruins will be without at least one of their veterans with bowl experience. UCLA’s leading tackler, redshirt senior defensive back Qwuantrezz Knight, will forgo the bowl game because of COVID-19 protocols, according to a social media announcement from Knight.

Knight could be joined by other Bruins who will miss the game because of COVID-19 protocols, as senior offensive lineman Atonio Mafi’s dad said on Facebook on Friday his son was placed in quarantine and did not travel with the team to San Diego.

With multiple bowl games across the country modified or canceled already, Kelly said Wednesday the team was doing everything possible to make sure the game takes place. Kelly added that he couldn’t comment on who else would be unavailable beyond Knight.

“A lot of our meetings were outside if they were bigger groups, all of our individual meetings have been spaced out so everybody’s within six feet. … We’ve used every space we could in the Wasserman (Football) Center,” Kelly said. “We’ve got our fingers crossed.”

Should the game be played as scheduled, UCLA will have the opportunity to continue its best offensive stretch of the Kelly era. The Bruins have scored at least 40 points in their last three games – all of which were victories – giving them the most prolific offense in the Pac-12 at 36.5 points per game.

UCLA’s Holiday Bowl opponent boasts the 16th-ranked scoring defense in the nation, holding opponents to 19.7 points per game while also tying Pittsburgh for first in the Atlantic Coast Conference in interceptions.

Thompson-Robinson said his team has to be aware of NC State’s ball-hawking defense at all times, specifically mentioning All-ACC safety Tanner Ingle and All-ACC linebacker Drake Thomas.

(They are a) really good team, really well-coached and really good scheme,” Thompson-Robinson said. “(They have a) really talented squad back there on the back end and (they) can really hurt you that way. … (I) definitely have to be wary of where I pick my spots and where I choose to go with the ball.”

On the other side of the rock, the Bruins’ defense has also been playing with increased production. UCLA is a month removed from holding California to 217 yards of total offense in its regular-season finale and has allowed 47 total points in its last 10 quarters of football.

The defense will toe the line against a Wolfpack offense that averages 33.1 points per game but ranks second to last in the ACC in rushing. Instead, the bulk of NC State’s offense comes from quarterback Devin Leary, who eclipsed the 300-yard mark in five of the Wolfpack’s last six games of the regular season.

Genmark Heath said the key to slowing down Leary and the NC State offense will come from UCLA’s quickness on the defensive end.

“I don’t think they’ve seen the same type of movements that we have on defense so they’re going to have to adjust and also our speed at all levels,” Genmark Heath said. “It’s going to be an exciting time and hopefully we can get after those guys.”

Making what could be his last career start with the blue and gold, Thompson-Robinson added that he and his teammates are ready to end the season with a win for the first time in their Bruin careers.

“We’ve been chomping at the bit ever since the last game,” Thompson-Robinson said. “It brings a level of excitement to the guys to get a change of scenery and get to go out and play in front of some of our fans.”

The Holiday Bowl will kick off at 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday in San Diego.

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Jon Christon | Sports senior staff
Christon is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously the Sports editor on the men's basketball and football beats and the assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats. Christon was previously a contributor on the women's basketball and softball beats.
Christon is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously the Sports editor on the men's basketball and football beats and the assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats. Christon was previously a contributor on the women's basketball and softball beats.
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