Blazers, Jaguars battle for in-state bragging rights on Thursday night
The UAB Blazers are getting used to playing on Thursday. UAB (1-1) kicked off the 2020 college football season with a 45-35 victory over Central Arkansas on a Thursday night, and then followed with a 31-14 loss to Miami seven days later. After a week off, the Blazers travel to Mobile for a third straight Thursday night game to take on a South Alabama Jaguars team that is also familiar with the weeknight spotlight.
The Jaguars (1-1) took the field for the season-opening Thursday as well and pulled off the first upset of the campaign with a 32-21 victory over Southern Miss. South Alabama then took the seemingly rare step of playing on a Saturday and built a 24-6 lead over Tulane before losing 27-24 in its first game at the new Hancock Whitney Stadium. With in-state bragging rights on the line in the Battle for the Belt, and another national television audience tuning in, the Jaguars also have an opportunity to secure their first win in the new building and match last year's win total in the process.
UAB at South Alabama
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 24, at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: UAB -7.5
When UAB Has the Ball
UAB quarterback Tyler Johnston III suffered an injury to his non-throwing shoulder and will not play against South Alabama, meaning redshirt freshman Bryson Lucero is set to make the first start of his college career. For most teams, losing its starting quarterback would be a major blow. However, Blazers head coach Bill Clark has already worked Lucero into the mix this season, giving the young signal-caller valuable experience. There's even an argument to be made that Lucero has outplayed Johnston this season.
According to Pro Football Focus, Lucero has a 71.3 passing grade compared to Johnston's 67.8. He also has averaged 6.6 yards per pass attempt compared to Johnston's 6.1 and hasn't thrown an interception (Johnston tossed a pick in the opener against Central Arkansas). But Lucero has completed fewer pass attempts for fewer yards, posting a 52.4 percent completion rate across 21 passes (compared to 66.7 percent for Johnston) while throwing for 138 yards and a touchdown — an 18-yarder to Myron Mitchell in the opener.
Mitchell could be Lucero's top target this week. In addition to leading the team with 12 receptions and 164 yards so far this season, Austin Watkins, Jr. suffered an apparent injury against Miami that could limit him against the Jaguars. Watkins ranks second on the team with 10 catches, 104 yards, and a touchdown. Tight end Gerrit Prince caught both of his team-leading two touchdowns in the win over Central Arkansas.
Lucero will have options in the passing game, but the Blazers could rely on the running game as well. Spencer Brown looks like his old self after dropping weight and getting healthy in the offseason. He leads the team with 201 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 40 carries. Speedy Jermaine Brown Jr. has gained 88 yards with a touchdown on 25 attempts.
When South Alabama Has the Ball
South Alabama will also turn to a new starter at quarterback. Head coach Steve Campbell announced this week Chance Lovertich would get the nod on Thursday night after completing 18 of 29 pass attempts for 247 yards and two touchdowns against Tulane in relief of Desmond Trotter. Lovertich also threw a touchdown pass against Southern Miss and has averaged 9.7 yards per attempt this season, which ranks No. 13 nationally. Trotter, who has been limited by a shoulder injury, actually ranks eighth in that category at 10.7 yards per attempt across two starts. He has completed 20 of 35 passes for 373 yards and two touchdowns but also threw two interceptions in the win over the Golden Eagles.
Both quarterbacks could play, and both will have dynamic receivers to work with. After finishing the 2019 season with a four-touchdown performance against Arkansas State, Jalen Tolbert used the Southern Miss game as a national coming-out party. Tolbert caught six passes for 169 yards and two scores in the win and followed with 99 yards on six grabs against Tulane. But Kawaan Baker was the star against the Green Wave, posting seven catches for 129 yards and a touchdown. And let's not forget about Jalen Wayne, who also has a 100-yard game to his credit this season, and has nine receptions for 134 yards and a touchdown through two games. Running back Carlos Davis offers a change of pace out of the backfield. Davis has 167 rushing yards and a touchdown so far, along with four receptions for 46 yards.
Both offenses have firepower and like to stretch the field vertically. Of course, both teams also have questions with new starters under center, meaning — as is often the case — defense could be the deciding factor. Though South Alabama's defense has shown improvement on the scoreboard this year, giving up 24.0 points per game compared to 30.7 a year ago, opponents have gained 5.78 yards per play in 2020 — nearly identical to the 5.77 the Jaguars surrendered on average through last year's 2-10 season.
UAB has allowed a surprising 33.0 points per game (up from 21.6), though that's a bit misleading after Central Arkansas scored a defensive touchdown and punched it in on drives of just four and 15 yards following Blazers turnovers. Nevertheless, UAB has allowed 5.40 yards per play this season (6.27 against FBS competition) — a major uptick compared to the 4.71 it surrendered in 2019. While there's obvious room for improvement, UAB has future pro pass rusher Jordan Smith at its disposal, as well as all-conference-caliber linebacker Kristopher Moll and cornerback Brontae Harris back to lead a more talented and experienced unit. The secondary will be challenged, but the Blazers' pass rush, which has accounted for four sacks and 42 total pressures this year, should give UAB the edge.
Prediction: UAB 34, South Alabama 17