UAB captures Conference USA title

UAB captures Conference USA title
UAB Running back Spencer Brown made the difference between a 27-3 loss to a championship effort Saturday. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr. / Alabama NewsCenter)

MURFREESBORO, Tennessee – The casting call has officially begun.

“The joke was, ‘Who’s going to play you in the movie?’ ’cause there’s going to be a movie,” Bill Clark said following the 2018 Globe Life Conference USA Championship Game. “Then it was, How do we want this movie to end? We needed to end it with a championship.”

On a windy, cloudy day in the shadow of the Music City, the UAB Blazers wrote the storybook ending to an unbelievable flick. Four years after the football program was shut down and just one year after its triumphant return, Clark led his team to its first football conference championship, coming from behind to beat the home-standing Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee State 27-25 before an announced crowd of 15,806.

Many in the stands were decked in green.

“Today was a home game for the Conference USA champion UAB Blazers,” fan Dewayne Meeks said on the field, suggesting that more UAB fans were present. “There was no doubt about it. Almost two to one.

“I’ve just been a fan since I moved to Birmingham and met Gene Bartow about 27 year ago,” the McCalla resident said. “Everybody said, ‘You gonna be a Tuscaloosa or Auburn fan?’ When I met Gene Bartow, that was it. I was a UAB fan.” A sea of cellphones encircled the fenced area near midfield at Johnny “Red” Floyd Stadium as CBS broadcast the presentation of the MVP trophy to running back Spencer Brown and the league championship prize to Clark, who just days before became CUSA’s highest paid coach. A week earlier, Brown got one carry as an injury largely kept him off the field. UAB was missing seven starters in the first game of this gridiron version of a twin bill.

Asked what he wanted to do with this week’s opportunity, Brown’s answer was priceless.

“I was going to run until the wheels fell off.”

The all-league running back turned in a stellar performance, rushing for a career-best 157 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries. Perhaps his best effort was a 30-yard run to set up Nick Vogel for the game-winning 28-yard field goal.

“People believed in this,” Clark said. “We raised $50 million to bring our program back. This is a thank you to them, too. People gave their own personal money to get us in a facility where we had a chance to compete.”

Middle Tennessee State (8-5, 7-2) went up 13-3 to end the first quarter before the Blazers surged ahead 24-13 in the second quarter. A Blue Raider field goal narrowed the lead to 24-16 at intermission.

The home team ultimately went up 25-24 on a 33-yard Crews Holt field goal in the fourth quarter before Vogel booted the game-winner.

UAB (10-3, 8-1 CUSA) won despite the performance of MTSU quarterback Brent Stockstill. The son of coach Rick Stockstill was 29 of 45 passing for 362 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

Offensive guard Malique Johnson said he never doubted that he and his mates could come back. “I already knew that we were a second-half team and we would come out and fight until that clock hit zero,” he said. “That’s what we came out and did. We didn’t get down on each other. We came together like a band of brothers and we just got the job done.”

Athletic Director Mark Ingram said you plan for success but having this much success this quickly is something even the most fervent Blazer fan could never imagine.

“We have a great coaching staff. We have great support from our fans and we have great support from our university,” he said. “When you put those things together and you get these great players on the field, you can do special things, and that’s what happened tonight.”

UAB now awaits its destination in the upcoming bowl season.

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