The 10-3 UAB Blazers are locked in tonight for their second straight bowl appearance and third in program history (also, 2004) under Eddie Robinson Award recipient Bill Clark.
‘The great Clark won the prestigious Award for being the top coach in the country. The UAB story is fascinating and rich. There could be a book written on this amazing comeback of football on the Southside with a sparkling year and a half old football facility and ground broken for a new stadium to be completed in 2021. And Clark and his team are delivering. They not only finished the season with 10 victories, they also claimed the Conference USA Championship with a 27-25 victory over Middle Tennessee at Murfreesboro, where they had lost the week before, 27-3.
It’s a phenomenal story that has been written about by highly reputable sports writers throughout the country including Washington Post and numerous New York Times best selling author John Feinstein. It’s not just a feel good story. It’s a spectacularly good story.
The Blazers finished 2017 with an 8-5 and a disappointing loss to Ohio in the Bahamas Bowl, 41-6, but Clark and his team rebooted in January of this year. Clark said, as his team was running stadiums, he and his team talked about championships. They didn’t shy away from that. And it came to fruition on December 1st when the Blazers defeated Middle Tennessee to claim the Conference USA Championship. Now the Blazers set their sights on finishing off the season on majorly high note as they compete in the Boca Raton Bowl versus the 8-5 Northern Illinois Huskies, which also claimed a conference championship in the Mid American by virtue of a 30-29 victory over Buffalo in the MAC championship game at Ford Field in Detroit on November 30th.
This is a fascinating matchup between 2 teams that are built on defense and ball control offense with both teams featuring explosive playmakers. With a victory, the Blazers are almost assured of a top 25 ranking at season’s end.
Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl
UAB (10-3) vs. Northern Illinois (8-5)
FAU Stadium, Boca Raton, FL., 30,000
Dave Lamont, Dez Howard, Jonathan Vilma, Alyssa Lang
Whistles, Mountain West, Cal McNeill, lead official
UAB by 2 1/2
This matchup features 2 of the most prolific defenses in the FBS. Northern Illinois leads the country in sacks with 50, while the Blazers check in at 2nd with 46. The Blazers are 5th in the country in tackles for loss with 89, while the Huskies are 6th with 87. A key stat to look at is 3rd down conversion percentage allowed by the defense, how the defense defends opposing offenses on 3rd down and gets off the field. UAB is 2nd nationally holding opponents to a 25% conversion rate, while Northern Illinois is 58th at 38%.
Outside linebacker Antonio Jones- Davis (5’11”, 226) leads the Huskies in tackles with 119, and he’s also posted 13 1/2 tackles for loss and 4 sacks. The bellcow of this defense though is junior defensive end Sutton Smith (6’1”, 237), who is 4th in the country in tackles for loss with 24 1/2 and tied for lead nationally with 15 sacks on the season. Smith is tied for the national lead in sacks with Louisiana Tech defensive end Jaylon Ferguson. Fellow defensive bookend Josh Corocoran (6’3”, 251) has posted 12 1/2 tackles for loss and 10 sacks, good for 8th nationally. Middle linebacker Kyle Pugh (6’0”, 235) added 99 tackles this season. The Huskies have recorded 7 ints on the season led by cornerback Jalen McKie’s 2.
On offense, quarterback Marcus Childers completed 212 of 368, 58%, for 1,996 yards, 15 TDs against 10 ints. Running back Tre Harbison (5’11”, 227) rushed for 985 yards and 4 TDs. Marcus Jones (5’8”, 199) added 523 yards and 4 TDs, while Childers chipped in 496 yards and 6 TDs. The Huskies leading receiver is D.J. Brown (5’9”, 185). Brown caught 55 passes for 484 yards and 5 TDs. Jauan Wesley (5’11”, 182) added 49 receptions for 585 yards and 2 TDs, while wide out Spencer Tears posted 34 receptions for 372 yards and 4 TDs. All these players are juniors and seniors. The offensive line features 2 seniors, 2 juniors and a redshirt sophomore. Center Luke Shively (6’3”, 300, SR.) is the leader up front.
For the Blazers, middle linebacker Chris Woolbright (6’3”, 235, Sr.) leads the team in tackles with 74 and added 13 1/2 tackles for loss and 2 sacks. The team leader in tackles for loss and sacks is towering senior outside linebacker Jarnell Garcia-Williams (6’8”, 245), who posted 15 1/2 TFLs and 9 1/2 sacks. Senior outside linebacker Tre Crawford (6’3”, 225) added 12 TFLs and 8 sacks. The Blazers registered 9 ints on the season led by Woolbright, strong safety Mar’Sean Diggs and corner Brontae Harris, who each picked off 2 passes. Woolbright took 1 back to the house.
On offense, the Blazers are anchored by a veteran offensive line. 4 seniors start up front along with a redshirt sophomore. Right tackle Justice Powers (6’3”, 300), a first team All-C-USA selection, is the leader, though left tackle James Davis (6’2”, 300), left guard Rishard Cook (6’3”, 340) and right guard Malique Johnson (6’3”, 320) are all seniors as well. Center Greg Fecanin (6’3”, 325) is a redshirt sophomore.
First team All-C-USA running back Spencer Brown (6’0”, 235, sophomore) rushed for 1,152 yards and 16 TDs. Behind his trusted line, Brown had a phenomenal season. Expect Clark and offensive coordinator Bryant Vincent to get Brown 25 or more carries tonight to get him crankin. Brown is a between the tackles, power runner, who also has the speed to make house calls. Quarterbacks A.J. Erdely (6’4”, 220, SR) and Tyler Johnston (6’2”, 212, Soph) have both performed well under center. Erdely has completed 111-of-198, 56%, for 1,539 yards, 7 TDs against 7 ints. Johnston, maybe a little more of an explosive player, completed 63-of-111, 57%, for 950 yards, 7 TDs against 8 ints. Johnston gives the offense more big play making ability, so I’m speculating he will get the start tonight. But if he struggles, expect to see Erdely fairly quickly. Not guaranteeing that Johnston will get the start, but he did get the start against Middle Tennessee in the C-USA championship and played well. Erdely has been battling an injury, but should be good to go tonight. The leading receivers for the Blazers are big play guys Andre Wilson (5’10, 180l SR) and Xavier Ubosi (6’2”, 217, SR). Wilson registered 30 receptions for 486 yards and 5 TDs, while Ubosi pulled in 28 throws for 610 yards and 5 TDs also. Senior Collin Lisa (5’10”, 168) is a terrific possession receiver. He caught 29 passes for 398 yards and a TD.
This is a very evenly matched game with talented players on both sides of the ball for both squads. I do like UAB’s 3rd down defense, the o line and Spencer Brown. I’d say Johnston is a better call at quarterback than Erdely. With all that, along with a very good UAB defense, I like the Blazers to get over the top in an edge of your seat game in South Florida. UAB finishes a phenomenal 2018 campaign with 11 victories and a massive amount of momentum heading into 2019 and beyond.
UAB 27, Northern Illinois 24