UAB looks to add another chapter to one of college football’s best storylines of the 2017 season, as the Blazers meet Ohio in the Bahamas Bowl on Friday. UAB’s program was disbanded following the 2014 season but returned after a two-year absence in 2017. Despite not fielding a team for two seasons and piecing together a roster mixed with junior college players, transfers and high school recruits, UAB finished 2017 with its highest win total (eight) in program history. Ohio is also looking to finish its season on a high note after ending the year on a two-game losing streak and missing out on a MAC East title.
As mentioned above, UAB’s return and success on the gridiron in 2017 is one of the best stories of the college football season. And none of it would be possible without coach Bill Clark. The Alabama native has took over as UAB's coach prior to the 2014 season and guided the program to a 6-6 mark. However, Clark was unable to build off that momentum, as the program was eliminated just before the 2014 bowl season. While Clark could have landed elsewhere as a head coach or coordinator, he decided to stick around in Birmingham and was instrumental in the program's return to the gridiron. Despite not fielding a team for two years, and low expectations in preseason polls, UAB finished 8-4 in the regular season and posted a 6-2 mark in conference action. The Blazers lost by three points to Conference USA West Division champion North Texas (46-43) and had another defeat by one point at Charlotte. Regardless of what transpires in the Bahamas, UAB has momentum on its side and is a program on the rise. And of course, it doesn't hurt Clark agreed to an extension in November, and the program is undergoing needed facility improvements.
Under the direction of coach Frank Solich, Ohio has emerged as one of the MAC's most consistent programs. The Bobcats have earned nine bowl trips since 2005 and haven't posted a losing record since 2008. Ohio was projected to be one of the top teams in the East this year, and Solich's team certainly lived up to that prediction. The Bobcats started 4-1 before losing to Central Michigan on Oct. 7. Following that defeat, Solich's team reeled off four wins in a row. However, Ohio lost its last two games, including a 37-34 matchup against Akron that essentially decided the MAC East title. A win over UAB would give the Bobcats their first season of more than eight wins since 2012, while snapping a three-game losing streak in postseason appearances.
This is the first meeting between Ohio and UAB on the gridiron. In the three previous Bahamas Bowl matchups, Conference USA holds a 2-1 edge over the MAC.
Bahamas Bowl: Ohio (8-4) vs. UAB (8-4)
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 22 at 12:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Ohio –7
Three Things to Watch
1. UAB’s Rushing Attack
The unquestioned strength and backbone of UAB’s offense is its ground attack. The Blazers rank second in Conference USA in rushing offense, averaging 190.3 yards a game. The backfield is led by freshman Spencer Brown, who led the team with 1,292 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. Brown packs a punch at 235-pounds and eclipsed the 100-yard mark in six contests. He also earned second-team All-Conference USA honors and should appear on numerous postseason All-Freshman squads. Backup James Noble rushed for 271 yards on 49 attempts, averaging a healthy 5.5 yards per rush.
In addition to Brown’s standout performance this year, UAB’s ground attack had extra help from quarterback A.J. Erdely. The sophomore was second on the team with 295 yards but led the offense with 13 rushing scores. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Erdely is a valuable weapon for the offense in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
It’s no secret what UAB wants to do on offense. The Blazers have accumulated 504 rushing attempts and passed 297 times in 2017. However, the run-first approach for coordinator Les Koenning is going to meet some resistance on Friday afternoon. Ohio’s defense led the MAC by limiting teams to just 111.4 rushing yards a game. The Bobcats only gave up 3.4 yards a carry, limited opponents to just 25.8 points a game and allowed 11 rushing scores in 2017. Additionally, only two opponents – Purdue and Bowling Green – rushed for more than 150 yards against this defense. Linebacker Quentin Poling earned first-team All-MAC honors after registering 102 stops (12.5 for a loss) and is the leader of a defense that registered 72 tackles for a loss in 2017.
In a matchup of strengths, which side will win out? Can UAB’s offensive line generate a push against a solid Ohio front seven to allow Brown to eclipse the 100-yard mark? Or will the Blazers struggle up front, putting the offense into third-and-long situations all afternoon?
2. Ohio’s Ground Game
Similar to UAB, expect to see a run-first approach when Ohio has the ball. The Bobcats rank 17th nationally in rushing, averaging 244.2 yards a game on the ground. This offense only had one performance of less than 150 rushing yards (Oct. 31 against Miami, Ohio) and eclipsed the 300-yard mark in three contests.
Solich’s offense features three players with at least 600 yards in 2017, with A.J. Ouellette the team’s leading rusher. The junior missed nearly all of 2016 due to injury but has rebounded with 980 yards and seven scores through 12 games. Ouellette needs just 20 yards to reach 1,000 for the first time in his Ohio career. But there’s some doubt surrounding Ouellette’s status after suffering a shoulder injury in the finale against Buffalo. The junior’s availability could be a game-time decision.
If Ouellette can’t go or is limited, the Bobcats will turn to Dorian Brown (605 yards and seven scores), and quarterback Nathan Rourke to handle even more of a workload on the ground. Rourke didn’t open the 2017 season as the starter but quickly earned the No. 1 spot over Quinton Maxwell after solid performances in a reserve role in the first two games. The sophomore has rushed for 882 yards and 21 touchdowns and reached the 100-yard mark in five contests. Brown missed the finale against Buffalo due to a hip injury, but it’s uncertain how it will affect his status for this game. An underrated cog in Ohio’s ground attack is its offensive line, which features three All-MAC performers.
UAB’s defense has been one of the best in Conference USA this season, which is a remarkable accomplishment considering where this program was one year ago. Coordinator David Reeves and Clark have molded this group from scratch into a unit that is only giving up 24.3 points a game. The Blazers are also holding opponents to 5.2 yards a play and have only allowed four runs of 40 yards or more this season. This group is giving up 169.8 yards a game on the ground but held two out of their last three opponents to less than 140 rushing yards. Linebackers Tevin Crews (12 tackles for a loss) and Shaq Jones (12 TFL) are active around the line of scrimmage, with Anthony Rush, Stacy Keely and Teko Powell rounding out a solid defensive front in the trenches.
How will UAB’s defense handle the Ohio ground attack? This could be the matchup that decides which team wins on Friday. The Blazers have been prone to give up some yardage but won’t give up much in the way of big plays. With Ouellette (assuming he can go) and Rourke leading the way for the Bobcats' ground game, this will be one of UAB’s toughest tests on defense this year.
3. Passing Game/Turnovers
Considering both offenses are built around the ground game, the passing attacks are likely to take a backseat on Friday. However, assuming both defenses aim to stack the box to slow down the run, the quarterbacks will have their share of opportunities to connect on big plays.
Rourke and Erdely are statistically similar in terms of production. Erdely has passed for 2,077 yards and 16 touchdowns, while Rourke has posted 2,018 yards and 15 scores. Erdely has an edge in completion percentage (61.8 to 54.4), but both quarterbacks have connected on eight passes of 40 yards or more. Andre Wilson (48 catches) and Collin Lisa (29) are the favorite targets for Erdely, with Papi White (32), Brendan Cope (35), Andrew Meyer (29) and Cameron Odom (20) rounding out the key weapons for Rourke in the passing game.
Which quarterback will have more success through the air? And if the offenses are backed up in third-and-long situations, executing the passing game is going to be even more critical to putting points on the board.
With a tight game expected, keep an eye on the turnover department. Ohio is minus-four in margin this season, with UAB checking in at plus-four. The Bobcats lost 21 turnovers in 12 regular season contests, which tied for 91st nationally. If Ohio loses a couple of turnovers on Friday, Solich’s team is going to have an uphill battle taking the Bahamas Bowl trophy back to Athens.
A close game should be expected in the Bahamas Bowl. Both teams want to establish the run, keep the offense in third-and-short situations and lean on their defense to win. UAB is one of the best storylines of bowl season, and coach Bill Clark should earn consideration for national coach of the year. Clark will have his team prepared, and the Blazers won’t be short on motivation. The guess here is Ohio’s defense and play-making ability of Rourke comes through in the fourth quarter, which is just enough for the Bobcats to earn a tight victory over UAB.