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Holiday Bowl Prediction and Preview: NC State vs. UCLA

San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl Prediction and Preview: NC State Wolfpack vs. UCLA Bruins

Wolfpack, Bruins close out their seasons in San Diego

Editor's Note: The San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl was canceled on Tuesday afternoon just a few hours before kickoff. UCLA said it's unable to participate because of COVID-19 protocols.

Since its inception in 1978, the Holiday Bowl has provided some of the most exciting and memorable matchups of the college football postseason. From the glory days of LaVell Edwards' BYU teams, including sealing a national championship in 1984 and engineering a comeback for the ages in 1980... the final collegiate run of Barry Sanders...

...the Holiday Bowl has built a rich and storied history. The San Diego tradition returns from a layoff due to the pandemic entering into a new era. With the former Jack Murphy Stadium gone, Petco Park serves as the host venue.

Related: College Football Picks for Every Bowl Game in 2021-22

This also marks the first year with the ACC as a partner, replacing the Big Ten. Big Ten representatives took over for the Big 12, which was part of the Holiday Bowl from its launch in 1996 until the end of the BCS era in 2013.

San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl: No. 18 NC State (9-3) vs. UCLA (8-4) 

Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 28 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Petco Park (San Diego) 
Spread: NC State -1

When NC State Has the Ball

In a season when the ACC had the most talked-about quarterback coming into the year (North Carolina's Sam Howell), the budding star of a surprise contender (Wake Forest's Sam Hartman), and an unexpected Heisman Trophy finalist (Pitt's Kenny Pickett), the outstanding performance of Devin Leary flew under the national radar.

However, Leary finished in the nation's top 10 for touchdown passes with 35 and threw just five interceptions for a ratio (7:1) slightly outpacing Pickett's (6:1). He also finished the regular season top 15 in passing yards with 3,443.

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Leary's top three targets, Emeka Emezie, Thayer Thomas, and Devin Carter present potential mismatches for the UCLA secondary. The Bruins operate out of a Nickel base with five defensive backs, and it will be all-hands-on-deck.

The Bruins gave up yards — they rank No. 111 nationally with more than 260 yielded per game — but limited touchdowns to 15 against 12 interceptions. The Pack's ability to attack with deep passes could be critical, as UCLA gave up 11 passing plays of 40-plus yards. NC State delivered on 13 such plays during the regular season.

When UCLA Has the Ball

Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson earned second-team All-Pac-12 recognition but was arguably the conference's best at the position. He closed out the regular season with 2,409 passing yards and 21 touchdowns against just six interceptions while tacking on an additional 611 yards and nine rushing touchdowns.

Thompson-Robinson's two premier targets — wide receiver Kyle Philips and tight end Greg Dulcich — combined for 15 touchdown receptions and both eclipsed 700 yards. Each brings different skill sets to UCLA's passing attack, with Philips' speed making him a dangerous deep threat. Dulcich is dependable in traffic and has a knack for turning medium-range completions into long gains.

They can expect resistance from an excellent NC State pass defense. From Oct. 30 onward, it held every opposing quarterback to a 51.9 percent completion rate or worse and had more interceptions than it allowed touchdowns.

The Bruins had the second-most prolific rushing offense in the Pac-12 behind the two-man backfield of Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown. Despite Brown being banged up down the stretch, UCLA went for at least 244 rushing yards in each of its final three games.

Thompson-Robinson's mobility adds to the depth of the Bruins' run game. Everyone will need to contribute against a top-25 NC State run defense keyed by standout linebacker Drake Thomas.

While the Wolfpack have held opponents to 3.8 yards per carry and 123.3 per game, they're not impenetrable: North Carolina and Louisville went for 300 and 215 yards. both offenses feature mobile quarterbacks.

Final Analysis

NC State has never beaten UCLA — of course, the Bruins and Pack have played just twice, last time in 1960.

The first meeting in six decades is also the first college football game played at Petco Park, and the San Diego Padres' home can expect as many homers from these offenses as it sees from Fernando Tatis Jr.

Expect plenty of explosive plays from both sides in a contest reminiscent of classic Holiday Bowls.

Prediction: UCLA 42, NC State 38 

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45 and subscribe to his newsletter, The Press Break.