SAN DIEGO — North Carolina State football coach Dave Doeren was watching the end of another bowl game Tuesday afternoon when he found out his own had been canceled less than five hours before kickoff.
Instead of visualizing how he would call the end of the Auburn-Houston game, he was forced to call a team meeting and alert his players that the 2021 season had come to an unceremonious end.
“I thought it was fake news, to be honest,” Doeren said, standing in the ballroom at the Manchester Grand Hyatt less than an hour after the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl was canceled. “Our team has done everything right. We’re 100% vaccinated … we were prepared to play this game, our opponent wasn’t apparently.”
UCLA bowed out of the Holiday Bowl hours before kickoff due to COVID-19 protocols. The news came less than a day after Bruins coach Chip Kelly said his team would do anything in their power to play the game even if they were down to 11 players.
“Felt lied to, to be honest,” Doeren said. “We felt like UCLA probably knew something was going on with their team and didn’t tell anyone on our side. We had no clue they were up against that. I don’t think it was very well-handled from their university.”
Doeren met with the team after the announcement was made. Seniors who were hours away from their final college football game made speeches. Quarterback Devin Leary did the same. There were tears, frustration and anger.
“That was going to be a lot of guys’ last chance to go out there and put on a uniform,” linebacker Drake Thomas said. “To end it like that, obviously there were a lot of emotions.”
The No. 18 Wolfpack (9-3) end the 2021 season short of 10 wins, which they had a chance to accomplish for the first time since 2002 if they had beaten an 8-4 Bruins team playing in their first bowl game since 2017.
“We would’ve won the game, no doubt about it the way our guys prepared,” Doeren said.
N.C. State athletic director Boo Corrigan said there are limited options in terms of finding another bowl game or another team to play. The Wolfpack have been in San Diego since Dec. 23 and planned to leave for Raleigh on Wednesday.
Corrigan said he spoke with UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond and called the conversation “frustrating.”
“We were three hours away from getting on the bus to go over there (to Petco Park),” he said. “I’m sure the locker room is already set up and the Powerade is made … what do you mean we’re not playing?”
Corrigan said the timeline for finding another game for N.C. State would come down to “the next couple of hours.”
“I’d go wherever they want to call us to,” Thomas said. “I want to play this last game with this group of guys. Whatever opportunity presents itself, I’m all in.”
David Thompson is an award-winning reporter for the USA Today Network covering NC State and Duke athletics. He can be reached at [email protected], at 828-231-1747, or on Twitter at @daveth89.