MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – Just as every conference championship should be, Middle Tennessee and UAB took part in a heavyweight slugfest Saturday in the Globe Life Conference USA Championship Game.
A week after beating the Blazers 27-3 on their home field, the East Division champion Blue Raiders (8-5) welcomed the West titlist Blazers (10-3) back to Floyd Stadium for the second time in seven days. It was the third time in NCAA history two teams played in the regular-season finale then again in a conference championship.
The away team got the better of MT this time around, winning a roller-coaster affair 27-25 to capture UAB’s first C-USA crown.
“Congratulations to UAB,” Raider head coach Rick Stockstill said. “That was a good, hard-fought game, and I’m extremely proud of our team.
“I’m really proud of my seniors. We fought our tails off and competed our tails off. We couldn’t get it done today, but that was a hell of a football team.”
After a UAB field goal tied things at 3 midway through the first quarter, it turned into a game of runs.
Middle Tennessee scored 10 straight to take a 13-3 lead into the second quarter, where UAB dominated with 21 unanswered points before a Blue Raider field goal to end the half.
The field goal, redshirt sophomore Crews Holt’s third of four on the afternoon, started a 12-0 MT run over the third and fourth quarters that gave the Blue Raiders a 25-24 lead with 10 minutes remaining in the game. He hit from 37, 20, 27 and 33 yards on the afternoon.
“For the first year being a full-time kicker, he had a lot of good kicks and was a lot more consistent in the last few games of the season,” Rick Stockstill said. “I’m proud of him. He did a nice job today.”
The score stayed the same after two punts, then UAB capitalized on a short field with a 28-yard field goal that turned out to be the game-winner.
Middle Tennessee failed on a fourth down on its final possession, then was called for an illegal substitution on a punt after forcing a Blazer three-and-out. It effectively ended the contest.
“We had 12 players on the field,” Rick Stockstill said. “It was my fault.”
The Blue Raiders’ experienced quarterback orchestrated both of their double-digit scoring runs.
Redshirt senior Brent Stockstill, playing in his final game at his hometown stadium, had his 18th career 300-yard passing game, finishing with 362 on 29-of-45 completions with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Murfreesboro native and MT’s all-time passing leader moved into sixth on the C-USA all-time passing list with 12,165 career yards, and his two scores put him in a tie with Tennessee Titans signal caller Marcus Mariota for 20th all-time in the NCAA with 105.
His favorite target was graduate Gatlin Casey, who caught a career-high seven passes for 37 yards. Terelle West had 81 receiving yards, and Tavares Thomas added another 63 and a touchdown.
A freshman also made a big impact for the Blue Raiders, as wide receiver Zack Dobson finished with four catches for 40 yards and a touchdown and three rushes for 52 yards.
The speedster has come on strong the last five games, averaging 64 all-purpose yards per game with four TDs.
“Zack has a bright future, and you saw that this year,” Brent Stockstill said.
Sophomore safety Reed Blankenship finished with 11 tackles for MT’s defense, while his senior safety mate Wesley Bush had 10 and an interception, his team-leading sixth pick of the season. That’s the third-most all-time in program single-season history.
Rick Stockstill wasn’t totally happy with how his defense played, though it held UAB to three points and 112 total yards in the second half after giving up 24 and 253 before halftime.
“We didn’t play good in the first half,” he said. “I’m not pleased with how they played the whole game. I just thought they played good in the second half.”
Though the loss stings, the Blue Raiders will have an opportunity to end their season with a victory. They’ll find out on Sunday where they’ll travel for a bowl game.
“I don’t know if you ever will [get over the loss],” Brent Stockstill said. “This one will sting for a while. … This is the one you set out to get in January.
“We’ve got a tough team and a mature team, and we’ll be excited about wherever we go. We’ll be ready to play.”
Josh Vardaman is the staff writer for goblueraiders.com. Follow him on Twitter @J_Vardaman and also follow @MTAthletics for more on the Blue Raiders.