7:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: UAB -2.5, Over/Under: 42.5
Who is ready for a quick trip to an exotic locale? College football teams, that’s who, as the Alabama-Birmingham Blazers and the Northern Illinois Huskies head to lovely Boca Raton, Florida for the Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl from Howard Schnellenberger Field at FAU Stadium. The resurrection of the UAB (10-3, 9-1 in CUSA) Football Program continues, as Bill Clark has successfully guided the school to their first ten-win campaign in their history, further validating their decision to hire him after the Program was inexplicably shut down for two years. Clark had the Blazers Bowl Eligible after last year’s commendable 8-5 finish, though this season has seen immeasurable progress in winning the Conference USA Championship. Needless to say, UAB are well ahead of schedule. Now, they’ll be looking for another first: a win in a Bowl. Since the Program was initially founded back in 1996, the Blazers have only participated in two Bowl Games, with last year’s disappointing 6-41 thumping against Ohio in the Bahamas Bowl being their most effort. Somehow, we have a feeling that they should be a little more prepared for such a postseason affair in Year Two of this revolution. After all, the second time being a charm has worked for them thus far; Clark’s charges laid an egg in their Regular Season Finale at Middle Tennessee State (3-27), only to turn the tables on the Blue Raiders a week later in the Conference USA Championship Game, thanks in large part to a 21-point explosion in the Second Quarter. Though the hosts were able to wrestle the lead back in the final frame, the visiting side pulled ahead for good via a 28-Yard Nick Vogel Field Goal with 3:23 left on the clock to seal the 27-25 victory. Alabama-Birmingham overcame 456 Total Yards from their opponent by controlling the flow of the game on the ground, rushing for a staggering 225 Yards and Two Touchdowns on Fifty-Four Carries, led by Sophomore Tailback Spencer Brown (248 CAR, 1,152 YDS, 4.6 Y/C, 16 TD) and Redshirt Freshman Quarterback Tyler Johnston III (56.8%, 950 YDS, 8.6 Y/A, 7 TD, 8 INT), who together accounted for 212 Yards and both scores. The Rushing Attack has been the foundation of the Offense since Clark took over, averaging 208.9 Yards on the ground this season on 4.7 Yards per Carry. Brown has been stellar in his second year with the Program, while both A.J. Erdely (56.1%, 1,539 YDS, 7.8 Y/A, 7 TD, 7 INT) and Johnston (who took over for the former after he suffered a shoulder injury) have factored heavily in the rushing production, totaling 257 Yards and Five Touchdowns in comparison to 331 Yards and Four Touchdowns respectively. With that said, neither Signal-Caller has distinguished themselves as a passer, which has certainly played a part in Clark’s predilection in keeping the football grounded. Granted, that’s a decision made a helluva lot easier when you have a Defense like the Blazers have, which has been arguably the best in the country outside of a Power-5 Conference. In 2018, UAB have allowed just 17.3 Points (10th Overall) on 300.2 Total Yards, including a scant 181.2 Yards against the Pass and another 119.0 Yards versus the Run. Pressure has been the name of the game, folks, with the Front Seven generating a wealth of pressure, with a plethora of negative plays in the Backfield; thus far, the Blazers have logged a ridiculous 104 Tackles for Loss and Forty-Two Sacks. Defensive End Jamell Garcia-Williams (42 TKL, 15.5 TFL, 9.5 SK, 4 PD, 1 FR) has been arguably the most disruptive force in CUSA, while Linebacker Tre Crawford (38 TKL, 12.0 TFL, 8.0 SK, 1 FR) has thrived rushing off the Edge, with fellow Linebacker Chris Woolbright (74 TKL, 13.5 TFL, 2.0 SK, 2 INT, 2 PD, 1 TD) making plays all over the football field. Both Garcia-Williams and Crawford notched a Sack in the victory over Middle Tennessee State, while Woolbright came up with a key Interception to secure the Conference Championship.
Meanwhile, for the twelfth time in the last fifteen years Northern Illinois (8-5, 7-2 in MAC) will be heading to a Bowl, as the Mid-American Conference Champions look to snap a five-game postseason losing streak that dates back to their miraculous Orange Bowl appearance in 2012. Don’t necessarily be fooled by the Huskies’ relatively modest record this season, for they’ve faced quite the schedule, particularly in the early stages where they faced a slew of traditional non-conference powers, such as Iowa (7-33), Utah (6-17), and Florida State (19-37). Granted, they lost all three of those outings, but Rod Carey’s charges certainly responded after facing such opponents; after their 1-3 start, Northern Illinois ran off six consecutive victories, mostly in narrow fashion, outscoring the opposition by an average margin of just 8.0 Points per Game. In fact, three of them came by three points or less, but then again, this is a team that has found themselves in many tight contests in 2018; despite owning a winning record, the Huskies were actually outscored on the season by a scant margin of 0.8 Points, with eight of their outings be decided by one possession. When we last saw them, they had successfully backed themselves into the MAC Championship Game, dropping each of their final two games of the Regular Season, setting up a date with MAC East Division-leader Buffalo. Trailing throughout the affair, including 10-29 early in the Third Quarter, Carey’s outfit absolutely caught fire down the stretch, scoring three consecutive Touchdowns to secure the 30-29 victory, earning their Mid-American Championship since 2014. This game was Marcus Childers’ (57.6%, 1,996 YDS, 5.4 Y/A, 15 TD, 10 INT) show, folks, for the Sophomore Quarterback may have finally found the consistency that has eluded him throughout the term in what was arguably the finest performance of his young career. Childers completed 21-of-33 Passes for a career-high 300 Yards, with Four Touchdowns and an Interception, while rushing for another Fifty-Eight Yards on Fifteen Carries, scoring each of his team’s three Touchdowns in the final seventeen minutes, tossing strikes of Twenty-Eight, Thirty-Two and Thirty-Five Yards respectively. Receivers D.J. Brown (55 REC, 484 YDS, 8.8 Y/R, 5 TD) and Spencer Tears (34 REC, 372 YDS, 10.9 Y/R, 4 TD) were responsible for both scores, as a passing game that has been largely dormant throughout the season finally exploded. If this trend continues, it could really open things up for an at times stagnant Offense that has had to rely on their Rushing Attack far too much, averaging 42.5 Carries to get 171.5 Yards per Game (4.0 Y/C). It would also go a long way towards alleviating some of the pressure on the Defense, which has performed admirably throughout the term, allowing an average of 21.5 Points (26th Overall) on 347.8 Total Yards, including 238.2 Yards versus the Pass and another 109.7 Yards against the Run. While being particularly stout against the Run, permitting just 2.7 Yards per Carry, they’ve been a bit of a different story against the Pass, where they’ve generated a wealth of pressure, totaling a staggering 48.0 Sacks. Northern Illinois blitzes a great deal, oftentimes exposing themselves on the back end where they’ve allowed opposing Quarterbacks to throw for 238.2 Yards per Game on 6.9 Yards per Attempt, an indication of breakdowns downfield. However, this group can really get after the Passer, particularly Edge Rusher Sutton Smith (56 TKL, 24.5 TFL, 15.0 SK, 1 PD, 4 FF, 3 FR, 1 TD), who has been a bonafide nightmare this season, accounting for Fifteen Sacks and 24.5 Tackles for Loss, while fellow Edge Rusher Josh Corcoran (28 TKL, 12.5 TFL, 10.0 SK, 1 FF) isn’t far behind with Ten Sacks and 12.5 Tackles for Loss. Yes, these guys are both a bit undersized for their position, but Carey goes about deploying them in creative ways, which almost always concludes with pressure on the Quarterback, as evidenced by their collective performance in against Buffalo, in which each player logged a pair of Sacks.