The UAB Blazers won their first-ever bowl game in program history on Tuesday night, defeating Northern Illinois in the Boca Raton Bowl by a final score of 37-13. The game was all Blazers from the start — they took a 27-10 lead at halftime before scoring another 10 points in the second half to put the game away.
On the night, UAB was led by quarterback true freshman Tyler Johnston III, who threw all four of the Blazers’ touchdowns, including two long ones for 70 and 66 yards. Receiver Xavier Ubosi caught three of those scores, too. The two connected on the Blazers’ first score of the night, which came on the very first play of the game!
The Blazer’s defense forced two NIU turnovers on the night, too. NIU running back Tre Harbison had the Huskies’ lone touchdown of the game.
The bowl win is remarkable accomplishment for UAB, who didn’t even have a football team two years ago.
In December 2014, the program shut down after apparent backroom shenanigans by the University of Alabama Board of Trustees, a body that had long given UAB fans reasons to think it didn’t like the program. The team then became nonexistent, and a total of 66 players transferred without having to sit out thanks to the NCAA granting them permission.
Fast forward four years later, and the Blazers finish 2018 as C-USA champions, with a program-best 11 wins, and a first-ever bowl victory.
The credit goes basically all to Blazers head coach Bill Clark. He completed his first year at UAB in 2014, and returned with the team as the head coach upon UAB’s resurrection in 2017. Last season, UAB went 8-5 — it got its second-ever bowl bid in school history from the Bahamas Bowl, but lost 41-6 to Ohio. Clark spoke with my colleague Alex Kirshner earlier this month about leading the Blazers back from the dead:
“So I just really had the idea to go out and go really, really hard at the junior colleges,” Clark said.
The program initially took about a 50-man signing class in 2016, after the NCAA provided a waiver to let it have more than the 25 initial counters teams are typically allowed. UAB also got creative with scholarship distribution, assigning some of its signees to its unused 2015 allotment. About 40 of the team’s 2016 additions were from junior colleges, including running back DJ Law and others who appeared on Season 1 of Netflix’s Last Chance U.
The NCAA’s help was important here. The organization told UAB it would freeze the eligibility clock of players in the program while it was dormant. That meant Clark could sell JUCO prospects on spending a year at UAB instead of at schools they didn’t want to be at. In Birmingham, they could get acclimated without losing a year of playing time.
“The big thought on that was that these guys can get not just academically better, but they can also get physically better,” Clark said. “So a lot of people bypassed a lot of the kids we took because of injuries or whatever, and we chose to take guys, because we knew we had another year or two to really get their grades good or get ‘em better physically.”
UAB is currently unranked in the College Football Playoff Top 25, but there’s no doubt its story is amazing, and should be celebrated. If Clark can maintain this same success consistently inside the C-USA, Clark has a chance to lead the Blazers into uncharted territory.
Of course, a lot of that depends on how long he sticks around.
The turnaround he’s completed in Birmingham makes his name worthy to be mentioned in upcoming coaching carousels. But for now, Clark sounds pretty content where he is now.
“This should be a national team,” Clark told Kirshner. “I’ve kind of used Boise as a model.”
Congrats to Clark and the Blazers on this incredible 2018 season!