Holiday Bowl returns true to form with thrilling finish at Petco

Photo by Andy Bartotto Oregon quarterback Bo NIx hands off the ball to ?? during December’s San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl played at Petco Park. The Ducks engineered the game-winning touchdown with 19 seconds to play.

The Holiday Bowl, with its long list of sponsors over the years, has been a staple in San Diego since the first game in 1978 caught both the fans’ and national media’s fancy.

The bowl game, originally pitting teams from the Western Athletic Conference and at-large opponents, quickly gained a reputation for exciting finishes. An absence of two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic couldn’t tarnish that image as the bowl game returned to live play Dec. 28 with the 15th-ranked University of Oregon shading the North Carolina Tar Heels, 28-27, on a touchdown in the final 19 seconds.

The exciting finish has to be a welcome sign that things are, in fact, returning to a sense of normalcy. That was certainly witness to the 36,262 fans in attendance at Petco Park, the bowl game’s new location following the demolition of SDCCU Stadium in Mission Valley two years ago.

With the Ducks, the third-place finisher in the PAC-12, trailing by a score of 27-21 against the Tar Heels, the first-place team in in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division and runner-up to Clemson for the conference championship, Oregon completed the game-winning score on a six-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Bo Nix to receiver Chase Cota on fourth-down-and-two.

The Ducks stole the win when kicker Camden Lewis booted the extra-point try. The ball initially hit one of the uprights but bounced through.

Exciting and heart-stopping at the same time.

But that’s vintage Holiday Bowl.

“Some of those drives where we stalled out and didn’t get a first down, our guys believed we’re going to get a stop and have an opportunity to do it again,” Oregon coach Dan Lanning said. That’s what it came down to.”

The game featured four San Diego County locals between the two teams — three on Oregon (freshmen defensive backs Jahlil Florence and Jalil Tucker, both from Lincoln, and redshirt defensive back Darren Barkins from Mater Dei Catholic) and one from North Carolina (defensive back Don Chapman, also from Lincoln). Barkins, from Spring Valley, represented both East County and South County’s contribution to the game.

Florence was credited with eight tackles, including six solo stops, during the season while Barkins logged three unassisted tackles and Tucker two tackles.

Chapman logged 33 tackles for the Tar Heels.

To add to the local flavor of the bowl game, Oregon used Southwestern College for practice sessions leading up to the game.

Amazing awaits

The game featured four lead changes and four scores in the fourth quarter for dramatic effect. The Ducks, who trailed by two touchdowns with 10 minutes to play, relied on the running of Bucky Irving, who rushed for 151 yards in the game and scored two first-half touchdowns, and quarterback Bo Nix, who passed for two touchdowns in the pivotal fourth quarter.

Irving scored on runs of two and 66 yards to alternately stake Oregon to early leads of 7-0 and 14-7.

Nix, who was limited somewhat by an injury suffered late in the regular season, delivered on the Ducks’ final drive by completing five of six passing attempts for 56 yards. He finished the game 23-of- 30 for 205 yards and two scores.

North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye logged 188 total yards and three touchdown passes in leading the Tar Heels to a 21-14 halftime lead. Maye threw touchdown passes to teammates Andre Green Jr. (six yards), Bryson Nesbit (14 yards) and Kobe Paysour (49 yards). Noah Burnette kicked field goals of 19 and 44 yards.

The Ducks defense rose to the occasion by holding North Carolina to field goals on two second half drives. Oregon out-scored the Tar Heels 14-6 in the second half to avoid a third consecutive bowl game loss.

The game ended on a defensive play as the Ducks knocked down a Hail Mary pass from midfield. Oregon, which was making its fourth Holiday Bowl appearance, finished the season with 10 wins and a bowl game victory to highlight the first season for Lanning.

North Carolina (9-5) was making its first Holiday Bowl appearance.

Irving was named the game’s offensive MVP while Oregon’s Mase Funa earned defensive MVP honors.

The San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl, as it is officially known, had reached a five-year agreement to play games at Petco Park.