So much for fairy tale endings.
Middle Tennessee’s Blue Raiders football team fought hard, but Alabama-Birmingham’s Blazers pulled ahead 27-25 late in the fourth quarter and held on for the victory at Johnny “Red” Floyd Stadium on Saturday.
The Conference USA Championship Game had its share of roller coaster moments throughout the contest, but the lowest point for Middle Tennessee came with 1:05 remaining on the clock in the fourth quarter.
The Blue Raiders defense came up with a third down stop, forcing UAB to punt, but MTSU broke the huddle with 12 men on the field, drawing a substitution penalty and giving the Blazers a first down and the ballgame.
While it would have been a tall order for the offense to drive against the stout Blazers defense to get a last-minute field goal try or touchdown, to lose in such a fashion was especially heartbreaking for MTSU.
A tearful head coach Rick Stockstill took the blame squarely on his shoulders. “It was my fault. If anything goes wrong, it was my fault. Nobody else.”
“There’s no explanation, no excuse. We just messed it up.”
Blazers Big Second Quarter
Unfortunately, for the Blue Raiders, it wasn’t their only mess up on the day. UAB was in the position to win late because the Blazers scored in bunches in the game’s second quarter.
“We didn’t play very good in the first half. Loved how they played in the second half, but when you ask me if I was pleased with how they played the whole game, no.”
After building a 13-3 lead in the first quarter, the Blue Raiders gave up three UAB touchdowns in the second quarter. There were missed tackles galore, but Blazers running back Spencer Brown was nearly unstoppable running the ball 11 times for 48 yards and a touchdown in the quarter.
Brown finished the first half with 98 yards on 18 carries.
With Brown and redshirt freshman quarterback Tyler Johnston, the Blazers controlled the ball for nearly 10 minutes. The Blue Raiders got the ball back down 24-13 with just over three minutes remaining and pulled it to within eight points with a last-second field goal just before the half.
The second half was a different story defensively as Middle Tennessee gave up just three points, but the damage was done.
Huge difference from last week’s game
It was a stark contrast from last week’s 27-3 victory over these same Blazers.
Well, not exactly all the same Blazers. Brown, the MVP of the Conference USA Championship Game, sat out last week’s contest with an injury. As did a number of other players on the offensive line.
UAB head coach Bill Clark said, “I really don’t want this to sound like an excuse, but we had a guard get hurt during the week, which never happens. We were at our third-string center. Our right guard gets food poisoning. Then our tackle gets kicked out in the second quarter for elbowing a guy in the head.”
“So, we really didn’t feel like we could run the ball like we wanted. And then not having Spencer, that’s a big deal.”
Brown and Johnston ran for a combined 212 yards on 48 attempts in the Championship Game.
Missed Opportunities in the Red Zone
The Blue Raiders had plenty of opportunities inside the 20 on Saturday. Three times, Middle Tennessee had the ball in the red zone, including once inside the five, they came away with nine points to show for it.
Those three drives ended at the 20-yard line, the three-yard line, and the 10-yard line.
While it ended up as a positive for kicker Crews Holt who went 4-of-4 on field goal attempts, the Blue Raiders simply needed more from at least one of those drives.
Stockstill, the quarterback, blamed those missed opportunities on a stout UAB defense.
“They’re a really good defense. That kind of changes the game there when you have to settle for two or three field goals. We weren’t able to overcome it.
Brent Stockstill has played his final game in Murfreesboro. The game started with promise for the senior quarterback as he finished the first quarter completing 9-of-12 passes for 184 yards.
The Blazers had no defensive answer for the Blue Raiders repeated wheel-route plays.
Stockstill’s second quarter was almost as bad as his first half was good, however.
The Blue Raiders first two possessions of the quarter lasted just 1:44 and one ended with a Stockstill interception. He was just 1-of-6 for five yards before their final drive of the half improved his second-quarter numbers to 7-of-14 for 63 yards.
Stockstill, like the rest of his team, played much better in the second half.
The senior finished 29-of-45 for 362 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
While he still has the bowl game to look forward to, it wasn’t how Stockstill wanted his last game at home to end.
“This is the one that you set out in January to try to get. It’ll probably sting all the way into the offseason.”
An Emotional Loss
Following the game, the Blue Raiders were obviously quite emotional. Coach Rick Stockstill, Brent Stockstill, Reed Blankenship, Gavin Casey, and Zack Dobson were visibly distraught as they answered questions.
“This team gives every day. They do so much, and I wanted so bad to win for them,” said coach Stockstill as he attempted to hold back tears
Quarterback Brent Stockstill was unable to answer the question of whether this was the toughest loss of his career.
“Yeah, definitely,” said the senior through tears. “Six long years, I gave it a lot. I can’t really talk. It was tough.”
Safety Reed Blankenship, who made some timely tackles, was also visibly upset following the game.
“It just hurts me. It makes me sick to see all these seniors cry. I love my team and I love coach Stock,” said the sophomore safety.
Up Next: Bowl Game
We’ve known for a while that MTSU was going bowling. They clinched that possibility in October with their sixth win.
What we don’t yet know is where they will play.
The bowl schedule will be officially unveiled Sunday, beginning at 11 a.m. on ESPN.
There are a handful of possibilities for the 8-5 Blue Raiders.
The New Orleans Bowl, the Boca Raton Bowl, the Gasparilla Bowl, the New Mexico Bowl, the Heart of Dallas Bowl, the Frisco Bowl, and the Independence Bowl all have either direct or secondary tie-in’s with Conference USA.