Bill Clark celebrated his first championship the same week he became the highest paid coach in the league. Just two years after being shut down, UAB are champions.
The rematch between these first-time entrants into the league’s title game was always going to be a little different than last week’s meeting here. UAB was sporting more of a full deck in this one, with Spencer Brown and members of the line returning.
Brown made himself known in the first half, running for nearly 100 in the first half alone, and 50 in the first quarter. The Blazers traded scores early with Middle but managed a couple of TDs where Middle could only muster field goals. He finished with 156 on 31 carries on the way to MVP honors. He had 34 of the Blazers’ 39 yards to get into game-winning-field goal position, including a huge 30-yard gain on first down.
The Blazer defense had come up huge, sacking MTSU legend Brent Stockstill on the previous drive to force a Blue Raider punt that gave the ball back to UAB at the 50, down a point.
The Blue Raiders had a chance to take the lead back but failed on 4th and 6 on the third straight Stockstill incompletion.
“That’s just football”, Brent Stockstill said in the post game press conference. “I tried to throw it on time to Pat [Smith] on that play, but he couldn’t get there. You get some calls, and some you don’t. That all didn’t lose us the game.”
The UAB defensive line which pressured the QB all day, was finally causing incomplete passes. UAB tried to run the clock out but MTSU safety Reed Blankenship came up with a big stop in open space to shut down Spencer Brown and force a 3rd down. UAB was stopped and forced to punt on the next attempt.
That is where drama happened. MTSU had 12 men on the field on 4th and 2 with about a minute remaining. The penalty gave UAB a first down, the game, and their first CUSA title.
Head coach Stockstill blamed himself. “We had 12 players on the field. It was my fault. If anything goes wrong, it was my fault. It’s not the players fault. It’s nobody else’s fault.”
In the immediate aftermath of the game, certain players felt differently. A handful of Blue Raiders had harsh words for their teammate. In the end, that was the final chance, but Middle had plenty before then. They started well, but could not maximize their chances.
To begin the game, Middle’s offensive coordinator Tony Franklin had the Blue Raiders line up in various unbalanced looks and found success with Stockstill throwing wheel routes early. Still, the 3rd downs were trouble and Middle gambled by going for it on 4th. They kicked where they needed TDs, but with Stockstill making plays it still worked enough to keep things close.
“They are a really good defense. They’re tops in the league in lots of statistical categories for a reason. It changes the game when you have the settle for a couple field goals.”
UAB broke things open in the second quarter with 21 2nd period points. Middle mustered a field goal — yes another — and after another 3rd down failure — yes another. Middle ended the half 1/8 on thirds and had a 24-16 deficit. Stockstill had thrown all over UAB’s tough defense thanks to some nifty running, some smarts, and a lot of accuracy.
He made a big mistake in the second quarter with by not seeing UAB LB Chris Woolbright and tossing an interception right to him. UAB scored a TD on that drive to make the Raiders pay.
The MTSU defense responded to start the third quarter. Wesley Bush picked off a wobbly floating pass from Tyler Johnston III. The subsequent drive ended on 4th down — the first failure for Middle of the game — but the defense again stopped UAB. This time UAB failed on two straight 1-yard dives — one each from Johnston and Brown.
MTSU head coach Rick Stockstill said “We did a lot better job in the second half tackling and on first down than we did in the first half.”
Middle then “passed” for a 46-yard TD from Stockstill to WR Zach Dobson on a touch sweep. Middle’s 2-point conversion failed. UAB could not muster a drive mostly because the run game was not as dominant. Middle’s stout second half defense was looking championship quality for the second half. UAB managed only 112 yards in the second half, after putting up 253 in the first.
In the end, the only offense that was needed was a Nick Vogel field goal 28-yard field goal and the rest was up to the UAB defense, which has won more than a handful of games for the Blazers.
Chats of “U-A-B” echoed through Johnny “Red” Floyd stadium as everyone realized that Middle had too many players on 4th down. The crowd was nothing approaching amazing, but the final drive was loud as UAB fans tried to encourage their defense to get a stop. A week after earning a home field CUSA championship game, Middle Tennessee had a hard time filling the stadium for the marquee matchup.
The rain kept away the tailgaters, and seemingly, a good portion of fans. The Grove that normally is filled with pre-game festivities was a swamp even as there were occasional breaks in the drizzle.
UAB fans dotted the pregame parking lot, sitting and smiling as they talked about the opportunity before their favorite team. What MTSU fans there were, felt confident in Brent Stockstill and the rest of the squad after last week’s blowout win.
Attendance aside, this was a quality game between two of the league’s best teams. The best players came up big and made plays. Brent Stockstill was 29/45 for 362 and 2 scores against 2 interceptions. What is more is that he made plays when there were seemingly none to be made. He stood tall in the face of the ridiculous UAB pass rush that won more than a few games this season, long enough to find outlet passes and his 4th and 5th options on a play. That was enough to move the ball but not enough to get the scores that could have won it.
Spencer Brown was incredible just a week after being held out for most of the game. He put in a workhorse performance — 31 carries — dragging defenders and simply carrying the entire offense most of the game. As FAU’s Devin Singletary moves on, the league’s best running back just might be in Birmingham. He won MVP and it was deserved. Even as MTSU did a better job of tackling in the second half, they were clearly concerned about the threat he posed.
Of course, when it came to winning time it was his clutch 30-yard run that put them in scoring position.
What It All Means
CUSA has a new champ and it is the west division’s first championship since Rice beat Marshall in 2013. Bill Clark has hardware to go along with all the respect and admiration he has from his peers, and UAB has something to shove in the faces of those that thought the program should be shut down.
The best team in the league all year won the league’s title and beat a legendary CUSA player on his home field.