HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — By Meat Loaf standards, it ain’t bad.
For a program that didn’t exist five years ago, it’s truly remarkable.
The University of Alabama-Birmingham football team notched its second Conference USA title in three years while handing Marshall its first ever home loss in a conference championship game on Friday night with a 22-13 decision in the 2020 Ryan Conference USA Championship held at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
The Blazers (6-3) — who disbanded the football program for two years before returning to the gridiron in 2017 — added another memorable chapter to their recent renaissance story as the guests dominated the first half and ultimately held on for a hard-fought wire-to-wire triumph.
UAB was competing in its third consecutive CUSA Championship game, and it was also the third straight year of participating in this contest as the road team.
The Thundering Herd (7-2), on the other hand, was appearing in their first CUSA Championship game since winning the title in 2014. It was also the third CUSA Championship appearance for MU after falling to Rice in the 2013 final.
Defense showed that it would dominate the game from the start as both teams traded five consecutive punts in the first quarter. MU also punted the ball away on its first six drives of the first half.
UAB, however, forced three consecutive 3-and-outs at the start and didn’t surrender a first down until the final minute of the first period. By then, the guests already owned what proved to be a permanent lead of 3-0.
After a Marshall punt near the start of the second quarter, the Blazers put together a 6-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a Hayden Pittman 19-yard touchdown pass from Tyler Johnston III, making it a 9-0 contest with 11:55 remaining in the half.
Matt Quinn — who made a 30-yard field goal with 1:45 left in the opening canto — missed his first point-after try of the season on the ensuing snap, keeping the lead at nine points entering the break.
Both teams traded punts for almost the rest of the first half, but Marshall’s final possession resulted in its only turnover of the night as Xavier Gaines heaved a deep pass downfield.
Grayson Cash hauled in the pick with just 15 seconds remaining. The Blazers took a knee on the ensuing snap and entered the locker room with a 2-possession cushion.
The Thundering Herd went 0-for-11 on pass attempts and had four 3-and-out drives in the first half, all while being outgained by a sizable 240-80 margin in total yards of offense. UAB maintained possession of the football for 20:17 of the opening 30 minutes and also had 14 of the 17 first downs at the break.
Both teams traded punts to start the second half, but Alabama-Birmingham’s second possession eventually turned into the spark that Marshall had been searching for.
Eli Neal scooped up a Johnston III fumble at the UAB 49, giving the Herd their best field position of the game with 8:23 left in the third.
Six plays later, Grant Wells found Artie Henry with a 7-yard scoring pass that allowed the hosts to close to within 9-7 with 6:17 remaining.
The Blazers, however, answered with back-to-back drives that resulted in successful field goals. Quinn hit from 42 and 48 yards on drives that ate up close to 13 minutes, allowing UAB to extend its lead out to 15-7 with 5:55 left in regulation.
The Herd needed only one play and 17 seconds to get right back into things as Gaines hauled in a 70-yard pass from Wells to close the gap down to 15-13. MU missed the ensuing 2-point try, keeping it a 2-point contest with 5:38 remaining.
Facing a third-and-6 at its own 29, Johnston III found Trea Shropshire behind the Marshall defense for a 71-yard TD pass that increased the lead back out to 22-13 with 4:02 showing in the fourth.
A pair of 15-yard penalties ultimately help stall Marshall’s comeback attempt before turning the ball over on downs with 1:41 left on the clock.
“Offensively, we didn’t do our job in the first half at all. We have to do better, but we just didn’t get done what we needed to. I thought we had some momentum going there (in the second half),” said Marshall coach Doc Holliday afterwards. “Our defense hung in there the entire game. We haven’t been the best team on the field for the last two weeks for whatever reason, and we have to get back to being the best team on the field. That game was a battle and a physical game on both sides.”
In picking up the program’s first ever win at Edwards Stadium, UAB coach Bill Clark noted that this fall’s title run has been just as trying as restoring the program. That’s what makes the outcome even sweeter.
“This may have been the toughest season yet. The ups, the downs, the cancellations. This is one for the record books with all of the adversity,” Clark said. “I think our whole program was built on faith and adversity. We believe in each other. It feels great. Once again, it’s just true joy by these guys and coaches. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
The Blazers claimed a 21-10 edge in first downs and outgained the hosts by a sizable 468-268 overall margin in total yards of offense. MU was 2-of-12 on third down conversions and UAB maintained possession for 41:26 of the 60-minute affair.
Both teams committed one turnover apiece in the game. The Herd was flagged three times for 42 yards and punted seven times for an average of 44.1 yards, while the Blazers were penalized six times for 50 yards and punted five times at a 35.4 yards per try.
Brenden Knox led the Marshall ground attack with 67 yards on 17 carries. Wells completed 8-of-23 passes for 138 yards to go along with two scores. Henry led five different wideouts with three catches for 18 yards.
Nazeeh Johnson and Tavante Beckett paced the hosts with 13 tackles apiece. Neal also had a dozen stops to go along with a fumble recovery.
Spencer Brown became the first running back to go over the century mark against MU this fall after tallying 149 yards on 30 rushes. Johnston III completed 12-of-22 passes for 252 yards to go along with two scores.
Shropshire led the UAB wideouts with five catches for 180 yards and a TD. Antonio Moultrie paced the UAB defense with nine tackles.
Marshall still leads the alltime series with UAB by a 10-3 overall margin. MU had won two straight prior to Friday night’s matchup.
Spencer Brown was named the game’s Most Valuable Player. Brown also won the MVP award in the 2018 CUSA Championship contest at Middle Tennessee State.
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Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.