Last week, UAB checked quite a number of “first time we did that since” items off their 2017 to-do list, and fortunately that resulted in getting to check their first win of the season off the list as well.
This week everything involved with their first road game in three years would get wiped from that same list, but it was uncertain exactly how likely it was that “road win” would be one of those items. It was hard to say how much of both UAB’s and Ball State’s successes and failures last week were their own flaws or their opponents’, so this would be a question-answering week.
It was obvious early on that the Blazers had used a lean playbook last week against Alabama A&M. Quarterback AJ Erdely opened the first half completing 11 of 15 passes for 136 yards plus another 65 yards rushing and two scores on the ground. Yes, you saw that correctly; Erdely took what the defense gave him, which meant 65 yards and two scores.
It was clearly the Blazer goal to try and push the pace as much as possible and run the ball a good bit in order to keep Ball State’s defense wearing down bit by bit. Five different Blazers ran the ball in the first half including wideout James Haden, and it worked well enough to produce three scoring drives.
Unfortunately, the back end of the Blazer defense struggled mightily the entire first half, as the pass rush was never quite able to get to Riley Neal in the backfield, and Neal, in turn, found wide-open receivers in converting 7-of-10 third downs in the half. The most egregious were at least two instances where the Blazers blitzed and left a receiver wide open directly behind it for an easy Cardinal first down.
The Blazers eventually started to hit their stride and forced a turnover on downs in between Erdely’s touchdown runs and snuck out to a 17-14 first half lead, but some poor tackling on a run up the middle left a huge hole for Caleb Huntley to break off a 52-yard touchdown run.
The second half saw more of the same, until a penalty call changed everything. Ball State was driving and scored yet another third-down pass for a first down, and at the sideline Jordan Petty lowered his head to make the tackle and bounce Ball State’s Corey Lacanaria out of bounds. Petty was clearly shaken up on the play… and then it was reviewed for targeting.
I understand that the rule is the rule, but watch the play again. Petty lowered his helmet, but he didn’t launch himself, and his point of contact was Lacanaria’s arm and/or the ball. That’s probably the least target-y targeting in the history of targets.
Not long after that, things started falling apart. No, not the Blazer football team, the ESPN3 streaming feed. With about 8 1/2 minutes left in the third quarter, right as Spencer Brown cracked off a 37-yard run that got the Blazers into field goal range inside the 30 of Ball State, the picture went black and I saw nothing.
That’s maybe for the best, as the Blazers then backslid from second-and-one at the Ball State 18 all the way to punting on fourth and 39 from almost midfield. By the time I had picture again, the clock on the third quarter was approaching three minutes and the Cardinals had the ball, but at least I came back just in time to see the Blazers make a third-down stop (ony their fourth in 14 tries at that point) and a Ball State field goal that pushed their lead to 31-17.
The good news for the Blazers is that pushing the offensive pace paid off, and the run game powered the ball right down the field for a score; the bad news is that they allowed Malik Gunner to take the ensuing kickoff 93 yards to the house to push the Cardinal lead right back to two scores at 38-24 as the third quarter approached its end.
The even worse news is that the fourth quarter began and Les Koenning, UAB’s offensive coordinator, lost his damn mind. After starting the quarter by failing to convert a third and three, the Blazers elected to go for it on fourth and one. From their own 34 yard line. Let me repeat that; with 15 minutes left in a game they trailed by two scores, Les Koenning decided that the best option on fourth-and-one from his own 34 yard line was to run it up the gut. I know they had been having success and momentum running the ball, but you don’t get that aggressive when you are trying to catch up.
The wheels kept slowly falling off the rest of the way. The Blazers stopped Ball State on third down, but got called for holding. Then they stopped them again on third down, but got called for roughing the passer because Tevin Crews kind of smacked Riley Neal in the head a little bit as he was going past him after Neal threw the ball.
Touchdown James Gilbert, ball game sealed. UAB would fumble the ensuing kickoff and another short scoring drive made this one look very bad.
PROS: The running-centric, up-tempo offense looks like a clear winner. Not only did the Blazers rack up almost 350 yards of rushing offense, but all four players who carried the ball at least four times averaged a minimum of 5.5 yards per carry. That kind of pop has great value, and now James Noble, Carlos Stephens, and Spencer Brown have all shown themselves to be competent rushers – not to mention the surprising work Erdely did running the ball. The defensive front seven did a great job of generating pressure and stopping the inside run until they wore down late.
CONS: Special teams were very much not so. The Blazers gave up a touchdown on a kickoff, and also had eight kickoffs that were fielded at or inside their own five yard line. Of those eight kicks, only two of them were returned beyond the 25-yard line (aka where they would have taken over with a touchback). In addition, the Blazers had a punt blocked late, and a punt return early that landed around the 12 but went out of bounds at the two because it wasn’t fair caught. Also, even if we remove all of the piss-poor penalty calls by the refs, there were still too many penalties, especially early on when the offense was trying to get going.
Another week, more learning. The Blazers never fully got out of their own way and ran out of gas late, and this score got crooked late. We’ll move on next week and handle our business against Coastal Carolina back in the friendly confines of Legion Field.