UAB’s revival under Bill Clark took another impressive leap in Houston on Saturday.
Uncertainty lurked in the atmosphere surrounding a Blazers team taking the field for the first time since October. But UAB overcame a halftime deficit to dispatch Rice 21-16. The Blazers clinched their third consecutive C-USA West division title, and have become an annual staple in the conference championship. UAB (5-3, 3-1 C-USA) ousted UTSA (7-4, 5-2 C-USA) in the division race due to winning percentage and will face Marshall in Huntington, WV next Friday.
“My hat’s off to Bill Clark,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “Anytime you win the western division and have a chance to play for the conference championship three years in a row, that’s a heck of a deal.”
Quarterback Tyler Johnston was the architect in the victory, despite operating from the pocket without his star wide receiver in Austin Watkins. Armed with a lethal deep ball, Johnston averaged over 24 yards per completion and ignited the UAB offense with two touchdown passes of over 40 yards. Johnston also led the ground effort by contributing a team-high 41 yards on seven carries, frequently pushing the sticks on QB powers and QB draws.
“We need to give UAB credit. They certainly broke a lot of tendencies and had guys step up,” Rice outside linebacker Blaze Alldrege said. “They returned their starting quarterback who missed a lot of the season and he brought a different element to the game.”
UAB, taking the field for the first time in 42 days, understand that the Rice defense would present a challenge. In the first quarter, the Owls sustained their firepower from last week’s 20-0 shutout at Marshall. For the 14th straight game, Rice’s opponent failed to score on its opening drive, forcing two three-and-outs to start the contest. Additionally, the Owls completed their entire 2020 schedule without allowing a single first quarter point.
“You talk about our guys getting a feel for them, and understanding based on film... and being able to take it from the class to the grass and being able to execute it — it’s amazing,” Bloomgren said.
Rice entered the game shorthanded offensively, bereft of starting quarterback Mike Collins, starting running back Juma Otoviano, and No. 1 wide receiver Austin Trammell. Rice ran the offense with redshirt freshman quarterback JoVoni Johnson, making his third career start. Approaching the afternoon with the same strategy from the Marshall game, Rice pounded the rock and controlled the clock in the early going.
On the opening drive, the Owls became the second team this season to draw up a 20-play drive that resulted in a field goal. They ate over 12 minutes of clock time and slowly churned out 62 yards to gain an early 3-0 advantage on a 39-yard kick from Collin Riccitelli. Rice continued its methodical clock-eating drives, taking over at midfield on their ensuing possession and registering another field goal.
But the tide quickly turned, as UAB was one explosive play away from gaining control. Tyler Johnston was money on his deep balls all afternoon. He connected with Trea Shropshire for a 54-yard gain, and Shropshire was a shoe-string tackle from reaching the end zone. Running back Lucious Stanley took over the reigns after Shropshire’s sizable pickup, and the Blazers earned a 7-6 advantage on a Stanley rushing touchdown.
Rice responded through the heroic efforts of tight end Jordan Myers, who delivered a memorable performance on Senior Day. Myers caught a career-high nine passes — seven in the first half alone.
“He tried to put our offense on his back,” Bloomgren said. “I thought he had a great performance, a gritty performance.”
He scored Rice’s only touchdown of the afternoon, a 26-yard reception on a corner route delivered by JoVoni Johnson. The score set Rice with a 13-7 advantage heading into halftime.
“I was in line, tight end on the left side,” Myers recalled. “The safety came and blitzed and Pavlov’s Theory — I got excited and ended up running the corner route, understanding that the linebacker had me in man. I had leverage on him, JoVoni threw a perfect ball with perfect timing, and I knew I just had to go into the end zone.”
But in the second half, UAB reverted to its primary offensive weapon — Johnston’s cannon arm. On the Blazers’ first drive of the third quarter, he hooked up with Myron Mitchell on a 63-yard bomb, where Mitchell dusted the entire Rice coverage unit. On the following drive, Johnston launched another ball to Samario Rudolph in the end zone for a 42-yard touchdown to secure a 21-13 lead.
“I thought these guys did an unbelievable job running the outside zone play today, so we had to try and get hats in the box, and that’s gonna leave our corners out there on an island at times,” Bloomgren said. “Somebody always has a tough play in the game of football, and when you don’t do things well technique-wise, sometimes the ball goes over your head.”
Rice’s second half was a struggle on two fronts — containing the deep ball and moving the sticks on offense. The Owls netted just 75 yards in the final two quarters, only crossing the UAB 40-yard line on one of their eight possessions. Offensive concerns only heightened when Johnson left the game in the early fourth quarter with an injury. Then, Rice turned to its third-string quarterback Wiley Green to close the season.
“It’s definitely unfortunate because you never want to see injuries like that,” Myers said. “Looking over and seeing your brother hurt is never a good feeling. But the thing I want to tip my hat off to is quarterbacks stepping up when their number is called.”
UAB still has its looming C-USA title game against Marshall and a potential bowl appearance on the schedule. However, following the 5-point loss at home, Rice’s abbreviated season is likely a wrap. With no games left on the schedule and a bowl bid unlikely, Bloomgren and the Owls look ahead to their offseason program beginning Jan. 25, 2021.
“I have heard no talk of trying to extend a regular season game at this point. I really believe our team did (want to play in a bowl game). Unfortunately, we fell short today,” Bloomgren said. “I don’t think anything about this year surely was not about a destination. Even if we made a bowl game it wasn’t about the destination. I just can’t wait to keep making progress, these incremental steps — step-by-step, brick-by-brick — finding a way to improve every day so we can get this program to where we want it.”