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UAB Wins West by Beating Rice 21-16

In the discussion before the season about playing CUSA football in a pandemic there were many reasons offered for doing so. One of the minor reasons was providing some entertainment to a populace in lockdown.

So here we were in mid-December watching a proxy playoff game. UAB needed a win to leap over UTSA on percentage points. UTSA finished the season 5-2 or .714. UAB entered today 2-1, or .667 and needed just a win over Rice to put their league record at 3-1 or .750. In short, they needed to play this game even though the roster was ravaged by either COVID-19 or contact tracing absences.

So we had a deep UAB team whose strength in depth is being tested to the limit, and an improving Rice squad that is looking for meaningful wins as they build the program in the image desired by Mike Bloomgren.

The stage was Rice Stadium, old and venerable but also empty on non-pandemic days. The sky is a Rice-gray, perfect weather for two teams that like to run the ball at you, and hit you harder than you would like.

Ultimately UAB won through big plays. Two big strikes by Tyler Johnston III to Myron Mitchell (63-yards) and Samario Rudolph (42-yards) in the third quarter erased the six-point halftime deficit and gave the Blazers the winning points. It was part of a day where UAB was shaking off the rust of 42-days, struggled to throw the ball the way they have struggled for three seasons. The thing is that they come up with the important passes when they have to. That is how you win the division three-straight seasons.

Late, Rice had opportunities but QB Jovani Johnson was injured on a scramble. The fourth quarter potential comeback had to be orchestrated by Wiley Green, erstwhile starter and current third-string QB. He could not complete the comeback, struggled with some throws, and took too many sacks. UAB linebacker Jordan Smith got two of them late as UAB’s defense sealed things up in the grand transition of Bill Clark’s program.

The Game

Rice deferred and held UAB. They then went on a time-consuming drive that ended in a field goal. While that was unremarkable, the gumption to go for it on short yardage on fourth down and the effort plays — even on one that was called back — was indicative of the kind of team Rice has. One seven-yard throw was stretched into a first down through sheer fight.

UAB was down the entire running back room and so the rotation from the backs was necessary. This game was always going to be quicker than most, given the proclivity for running by both teams. They needed and could not get the decisive pass completions on the next drive. THree-and-out.

Rice was helped by a 15-yard penalty after the punt, and then another on a horse-collar tackle. That ended in a FG. UAB gave the kicker another shot after an offside on the first missed kick.

UAB then hit a big pass to get in scoring range that set up a nice stretch run to get up 7-6. UAB then stopped Rice and then had a chance to get another first down but dropped a wide-open pass. Hit-and-miss in the pass game. They dropped about four open opportunities in this one but hit on the two biggest.

Rice then executed some screens to the running back, and a wide receiver one, also, then found Jordan Myers on a corner route for six. It was a great throw from Johnson on time and in stride. Rice up 13-7. Johnson showed a lot in this game that portends great things for the future.

To end the half, UAB had no time left but drove 41 yards. That was their second longest drive of the game. Meanwhile, Rice had moved the ball well through their aggression and smart play calling.

Rice 1st half drives, ordered by length:

  • 83 – TD
  • 25 – punt
  • 35 – FG
  • 62 – FG (20 plays!)

After the half the Blazers hit on those two big touchdowns — Samario Rudolph had a hell of a catch in traffic on 2nd and 11. UAB had missed on some plays — drops on a couple of wide-open passes but this was super tough and he caught it.

21-16 — Rice got a big stop and Jovani Johnson got a big first down. He was hurt on the play and Wiley Green stepped in. He threw incomplete twice and looked rusty. UAB forced a punt with just under 8 minutes. Pinned back inside the 2 yard line.

Tyler Johnston III had clutch runs in the final UAB drives. The Blazers went to a series of QB runs that included an outside zone, inside zone, and some QB draws that got huge first downs. They did not do much more than eat clock but Rice needed time and opportunities and getting those first downs and running clock served to deprive them of both.

What It Means

UAB won the division for the third straight season. When we criticize or highlight the weaknesses, those aren’t really knocks but just observations. Despite never finishing higher than 9th in league passing since 2017, UAB has won with a powerful run game and an even more effective defense. They won largely through that here, but scored because they could hit the big pass.

Looking ahead, UAB takes on a really good Marshall team that is angry for having played so poorly against this same Rice squad. It should be good game in (presumably) Huntington. UAB has not hosted the title game in their three seasons. They blew the opportunity to do so by losing in Murfreesboro in 2018, but followed that up by winning there the next week vs MTSU. This season they blew a lead vs tech that *might* have put the team in better position to earn the right to host, but those are the breaks.

Rice has no scheduled games going forward, but has a good team to look forward to next season. We have called them UAB-lite and that was on display. Jovani Johnson is a bright spot (hopefully he recovers soon. He limped off on crutches) and the line and overall philosophy is built to last.

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