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Rice 28, UAB 24

Did he or didn't he? Ari Broussard leaps for the goal on fourth and one  (PTH photo)

HOUSTON (Oct. 2) –The University of Alabama-Birmingham came to South Main Saturday bent on revenge, given that the Owls upset them last year at home – and left the Heart of Dixie laughing and hooting about it.

This Saturday’s result was hardly a laugher, as the visiting UAB contingent of quick, strong, talented, mostly juco transfers was intent on landing a body blow to the fledgling “nerds from some private school, beneath us” as one of their alums put it.

But it turned out that those nerds fought and struggled and eventually came out once again on top despite being outgained and out-slugged and out-held and out cheap-shot throughout the duration of what seemed to be an interminable evening.

Seemingly moribund, down 17-7 at the half, the Owls came out of the halftime locker room apparently, well, OK to give the second half the old college try – but then came a cheap-deapiest of  cheap shots leveled on Rice defensive stalwart Gabe Taylor.

The entire Rice squad welled up on derision on the sideline, and after that, them nerd boys tossed about the more talented, skilled and let’s not forget to add undisciplined, visitors like so many rag dolls, driving for two TDs and alertly picking up a scoop n’ score to capture the lead; then staging a spirited last-minute defensive surge to come out victorious.

Certainly things broke well for the Owls on the game’s initial drive. Taking the opening kickoff, the Owls stormed 75 yards in 11 plays, the bulk of them coming within the last couple yards of the goal line. Key receptions by Luke McCaffery for 10 and Bradley Rozner for 28 more got the Owl attack going.

Then came that alleged goal line stand by the UAB defense.

The UAB fans present in the east stands were bunched along that goal line, and they howled mightily when the refs signaled TD on fourth and goal from the one yard line. From our perspective, it appeared that Ari Broussard did break the plane with his diving leap. It also appeared that he was in possession of the ball at such time as he crossed the plane. The only question was whether there was a knee down at such time, which is unlikely considering the fact that Ari was airborne at the time. We think it was a legitimate touchdown, and of course we’re not biased.

In any event, when after the ensuing kickoff, three plays later, Gabe Taylor stepped in front of a Dylan Hopkins pass  and picked it off nice and clean – only a stumble away from taking it all the way back for the score --  things look bright indeed for the Feathered Flock. Little did Owl fans know at the time that basically that was about it for the duration of the first half.

Yep, the scorebook shows that the Owls did not gain a single first down the rest of the half against the UAB defense. Meanwhile, two major gaffes almost wound up giving the game away, and most present in the stands and following the game elsewhere likely were pretty resigned to the fact that in fact they had indeed done so.

The first SNAFU occurred when the Owls were pushed back deep in their own territory. Facing a first and 10 at their own three, Ari Broussard went off tackle and was stripped of the ball as he hit the line of scrimmage, and UAB recovered. If there ever were a gift touchdown, that was it. UAB scored the next play, DeWayne McBride taking it in from three yards out to tie the score.

The next gaffe came midway in the second quarter, this time occurring when the Owls, down 10-7,  had the Blazers backed within the shadow of their own goal.  It was set up when Conor Hunt got off a 57-yard punt to the UAB three yard line.  From there, the defense was stout, Floyd and Siano, then Williams and Nyakwol shutting down ace UAB running back DeWayne McBride for scant yardage.  

So facing third and 11 from their own 2 yard line, UAB quarterback Dylan Hopkins zipped a sideline pass to TeJuan Palmer who tucked the ball under and raced 71 yards down the visiting sideline until finally waylaid by Marcus Williams at the Rice 28. Seven tough plays later, UAB QB Hopkins connected with his Samario Rudolf in the end zone from eight yards out to put the Owls in a 17-7 hole.

Those two plays resulted in a 14-point turnaround.  Absent same, at that point the worst off the Owls could have been would have them still nursing a 7-3 lead at halftime, despite being totally shut down offensively after their first possession of the game.

So things looked grim at the half, as did some of it some of us elsewhere than in the stands. After all, UAB was getting the second half kickoff, and they not been stopped by the Rice defense except, sort of, right at the end of the second quarter when tOwl defenders, aided by two consecutive holding calls against the Blazers, shut down a UAB drive at midfield.

Nonetheless, with UAB getting the ball to open the third quarter and consistently driving, the Owls were staring right down the gun barrel of a possible 24-7 deficit, and that surely would’ve been curtains.

It could’ve been worse.  “To play that way in the first half and to only be down 17-7 I thought was a blessing,” Coach Bloomgren averred.

But then a strange thing happened. Or rather, perhaps, the Blazers played according to script, as on the second-half kickoff, Blazer defender Reise Collier totally coldcocked Owl cornerback and defensive leader Gabe Taylor, leveling to him the ground away from the play and laughing about it.

Naturally, he got flagged for unsportsmanlike, but that was the play that aroused the entire Owl squad with a will to take over the game. To their credit, they managed to avoid rushing the field and knocking some heads, but instead what they did simply was, well, they just charge of the game.

Enechukwu, Chamberlain, Morrison and Taylor snuffed scatback DeWayne Mc Bride’s rushing attempts three times, and the Blazers had to punt away from their own 14.  Sean Fresch returned the punt to the UAB 48, and that’s when the Rice offense came to life.

First, TJ McMahon scrambled for 20 yards to the UAB 25, then hitting Isaiah Esdale for 11 more yards to the 12.  From there, Broussard got five, TJ scrambled for four more, and then Ari took it over from the three, and the Owls were back in the game, down 17-14.

Next possession, operating from his 26, Dylan Hopkins threw what appeared to be a backwards pass to his wideout, who was met immediately with a crushing blow by George Nyakwol.  The ball bounced lamely away, no whistle was blown, and so what the heck, Gabe Taylor alertly grabbed the ball and scooted into the end zone, while everybody else stood by as if dazed.  Touchdown it was, and the Owls suddenly found themselves up, 21-17.

Cam Montgomery provided the sideline commentary, post-game.  “I see George and I’m like, ‘That’s my boy!’” Cam said. “I saw George make the tackle on the running back in the backfield, but I just thought big hit like, ‘Boom!’ That’s what I’m screaming -- ‘Boom!’ I wasn’t even thinking backwards pass. I saw everybody celebrating so I just jumped off the bench, forgot my helmet, grabbed a towel and started swinging a towel. I’m just cheering like, wow, big play.”

UAB wasn’t done, however, as they stormed back on a 74-yard, ten play drive that was lengthened by a couple of holding penalties, richly earned.  This possession also featured a weird  delay of game penalty against the Rice defense.  It was culminated with a 28-yard Hopkins TD pass to Trea Shropshire, putting the Blazers back on top, 24-21 with 2:30 left in the third quarter.

The Owls came right back, however, taking the ensuing kickoff, mixing the short pass and run, and driving the length of the field, paced by a 17-yard grab, TJ to Luke McCaffery on first and 15 from the Owl 34, followed right up by a 21 yard scamper by Ari Broussard to set up the Flock in sight of the goal line.

From there, it was grind-it-out time, and grind the Owls did,  It looked as if the Rice effort might have stalled at the UAB one yard line when, on fourth and goal, the boys were flagged for illegal procedure.  But operating from the six, TJ found Dean Connors waiting a couple yards from the pylon, where he did a nifty side-step and crossed the goal to put the Owls up for good.

But the excitement hardly waned from there.  First, taking the return kickoff with nine minutes remaining in the game, UAB was able to drive as far as the Rice 15, eating up plenty of clock as they rolled along.

Then  on second and 14 from the Rice 15, Hopkins misfired three times in a row in an effort to connect with his favorite wideout, Trea Shropsire.  That meant the Owls were taking the ball back over with 3:28 left in the game.  Could they run out the clock from there?

UAB was out of time-outs, so a single first down would have meant the end of it all.  But Rice elected to go ultra-conservative, plowing into the center of the line three times in a row, while milking the clock as much as they could.

Consequently, the Owls had to punt it away, but Conor Hunt got off a neat 46-yarder with no return, pushing the Blazers back to their own 39 yard line with 1:07 left to play and no timeouts.

From there, UAB was able to push the ball down the field as far as the Rice 35, but then the Rice defensive line took over the proceedings.

First, Trey Schuman stormed stormed in to drop the UAB quarterback for a 6-yard sack.  Next play, Josh Pearcy did the honors, forcing a fumble which was recovered by UAB’s McBride, loss of seven.  Finally, Josh got in the backfield a second time and sat down the UAB quarterback, Dylan Hopkins, for a third straight sack as the clock ran out.

“Honestly, that’s the type of game we live for defensively,” Ikenna Enechukwu commented post-game. “We want to be the most brutal, the most physical team out there. We want our opponents to know — while we were trying to keep it in between the whistles — between whistles, we’re going to dominate.”

So what does this victory mean to Coach Bloomgren and his merry men?  “It means we’ve taken some real steps in this football program -- and I couldn’t be more proud of these guys,” Coach Bloom said afterwards.

 “To beat them two years in a row means everything. Cameron Montgomery and Ikenna Enechukwu were on that field in 2018 when they beat the life out of us. We all remember that. When you talk about how far this program has come, and we’re nowhere near the pinnacle — we’re still growing — this means a lot to a lot of people in that locker room and on this coaching staff.”