Middle Tennessee (5-3, 4-1 C-USA) took on the University of Alabama-Birmingham Blazers(4-3, 2-2 C-USA) in the Blue Raiders’ homecoming matchup Saturday afternoon, edging out a 34-22 victory to pick up their fifth win of the season.
Both teams moved the ball with similar effectiveness early in the first quarter, but UAB carried over a similar strategy that was used in their loss to the Blue Raiders last season.
In their previous matchup in Birmingham last year, UAB opened up with 26-consecutive running plays. Saturday evening, the Blazers started the contest with 36 of their 45 first-half offensive plays coming on the ground.
“I expected it last year, but I didn’t expect it today,” MT coach Rick Stockstill said. “I don’t know if us changing up defensively, changed their game plan going in, or if they thought they could run the ball consistently enough to win the game. I’m surprised they didn’t take more shots deep, but we played a cover two shell to prevent deep balls they were getting earlier in the year.”
Middle Tennessee had the more explosive offense in the first quarter although they had little help from its running game. Only 14 of MT’s 113 yards of total offense came on the ground.
A great deal of the Blue Raider offense in the first half was attributed to a 65-yard touchdown pass from MT sophomore quarterback Austin Grammer to Chris Perkins, their longest pass of the year.
The game stayed close despite UAB nearly doubling MT’s time of possession, 19:24 to 10:36. At halftime, the Blazers had already ran 45 plays, averaging more than five yards per play. Middle Tennessee only ran 29 plays, averaging seven yards per play.
Middle Tennessee showed its versatility, running several different types of plays and cycling between its committee in the backfield: Jeremiah Bryson, Reggie Whatley and Shane Tucker.
Bryson led the way in the backfield with a season high 58 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. Reggie Whatley added seven carries for 100 yards and one touchdown, coming on a career-best 67-yard touchdown run.
“We got good backs, and you never know who is going to be the star of that game,” Stockstill said. “I thought we ended up winning the game because of our running game in the fourth quarter. But we weren’t going to win the game running the football today because of what they did overloading the box.”
Both teams struggled to get much going offensively in the third quarter. Middle Tennessee’s offense was good for only 18 yards on 14 plays in the third stanza, averaging only 1.3 yards per play compared to their seven yards per play in the first half.
Alabama-Birmingham doubled their passing yardage in the first half, posting 84 yards in the third quarter, including a late push in the end zone.
UAB quarterback Cody Clements connected with receiver Jamari Staples on two consecutive plays for 68 yards, including a 43-yard touchdown to give the Blazers its first lead of the game at 22-21.
MT’s offense sprang to life in the fourth quarter though, with an explosive 67-yard touchdown run from Whatley giving the Blue Raiders a 27-22 lead early in the fourth.
But it was primarily the play from Middle Tennessee’s defense that helped the Blue Raiders edge out the victory.
MT intercepted Clements twice in the final quarter. The first was a deep pass tipped by safety Xavier Walker right into the hands of linebacker T.T. Barber.
The second interception sealed the win for the Blue Raiders, as Kevin Byard grabbed his fifth pick of the season and 14th-career interception, which places him second all-time on MT’s career interceptions list.
A late touchdown pass from Grammer provided the final nail in the coffin, giving the Blue Raiders the 34-22 win over UAB.
This win moves the Blue Raiders closer to bowl eligibility as they head into a bye next week. Middle Tennessee takes on BYU at home November 1 at 2:30 p.m.
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To contact sports editor Connor Grott, email email@example.com