EDITORS NOTE: Let me start by saying that I am fully aware that the true story is more complex and far-reaching than what I’m writing here, that’s the whole reason behind the book I’m working on. But this is just a window into that larger story via the 2013 season, which wound up being the beginning of the end as it pertains to the shutdown of the program.
In the summer of 2013, the Blazers were entering Garrick McGee’s second season, and year one wasn’t great. McGee took over from the recently departed Neil Callaway, and pushed the Blazers all the way… to a 3-9 record. Again.
The offense struggled, as junior quarterback Jonathan Perry got replaced by Austin Brown, who remained under center all the way until the season-ending loss against UCF despite struggles on game day throughout the season. The defense had difficulty keeping up and getting off the field, the offense had difficulty staying on the field, and it was just a recipe for disaster.
The 2013 season had some signs of legitimate hope, though. Perry and Brown were both back, as was 1,000-yard rusher Darrin Reaves, who was now joined in the backfield by future NFLer Jordan Howard. The receiving corps lost a lot of production but there were high hopes for the likes of JJ Nelson. On defense, nobody knew what Jake Ganus and Jordan Petty would become just yet, but the promise had been seen in the offseason.
Things got off to a rough start with a home opener at Troy, one of the Blazers’ fiercest rivals. The Blazers fell behind early but the passing game was clicking, as Austin Brown found JJ Nelson and Jamari Staples in the end zone.
McGee somehow decided that it would be a good idea to follow Nelson’s 97-yard kick-return touchdown by trying to catch the Trojans napping and going onsides. It didn’t work, but UAB held tough and a 62-yard bomb from Brown to Nelson in the last minute of the third quarter saw the Blazers push their lead to 31-17.
And that was it.
UAB’s offense did nothing for the entirety of the fourth quarter. That would include a drive that started at the Troy 46 thanks to a forced fumble by Ganus, saw Reaves crack a 13-yard run on the opening play… and ended with the Blazers punting on 4th and 29 from their own 48.
The defense forced that fumble, but otherwise gave up two scoring drives in the fourth quarter. They shut down the Trojan offense for a field goal in overtime, but it was far too late at that point, as UAB had botched their own field-goal attempt, giving the Trojans the win.
Things went pretty predictably for the rest of September, as the Blazers got manhandled on the road by both LSU and Vanderbilt, but sandwiched that with a similar home dominance of Northwestern State, sending them into October at 1-3.
Things didn’t get better in October. UAB faded late against Florida Atlantic, giving Carl Pelini his last win as head coach before being fired two weeks later.
They needed a last-second field goal from Ty Long to avoid blowing a two-touchdown lead against an awful Florida International team.
They rounded out the month by getting absolutely smoked by a UTSA squad that didn’t exist two years prior. the Blazers scored the last two touchdowns of the game and still lost by 21 points to a team whose all-time record entering play was 10-9.
And yet, somehow, things got even worse in November.
Sure, things seemed to turn around initially. The Blazers hung tough against a Middle Tennessee team that would win eight games and go bowling. They still wound up on the wrong side of a last-second field goal and another loss, but a lot of good things happened that might light a spark.
Instead, the tailspin came.
First came a 56-14 loss at Marshall.
UAB racked up 464 yards of offense but gave up almost 200 more than that on defense, as three different Herd tailbacks rushed for over 100 yards. In the first half alone, the Blazers fumbled once inside Marshall’s 20-yard line and once inside their own 20-yard line, missed one field goal attempt and passed on another for a failed fourth down conversion.
Marshall had two drives all game where they didn’t score, and one was a missed field goal. Rakeem Cato was efficient, the run game was explosive, and the Blazers lost by 42 in a game where they held nearly a 2:1 advantage in time of possession.
The Blazers would then hit the road again the following week, losing 63-14 at East Carolina. This one was uglier earlier; ECU opened the game with a punt and an interception, and Shane Carden threw a second interception later in the half, but still went into the locker room having thrown for 220 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for another.
The offense struggled wire to wire, as their opening trip across midfield resulted in a rushing touchdown, but was followed by a red-zone fumble by Jordan Howard. The Blazers didn’t cross midfield again until the fourth quarter, when they already trailed 56-7. Once again the offense gained yards and converted third and fourth downs, but the defense was no match for Carden-to-Hardy.
Still, that two-week span that looked an awful lot like the wheels coming off the bus, the interior being lit on fire, and the crew jumping ship while the coach said everything was fine would in no way prepare anyone for what was to come the following two weeks.
The Blazers would return home to face a Rice team that was having a very good season; they entered this game with an opportunity to be the first Rice Owls football team in more than 60 years to finish the season with more than seven wins.
UAB started slow but kept grinding, and posted back-to-back scoring drives to open the second half to give themselves a 21-17 lead. Rice pushed back and led 31-21 with just over seven minutes remaining, but the Blazers found new life and used a fumble in Rice territory to force a game-tying field goal with 37 seconds left that would push to overtime.
Things were looking very positive. A Blazer squad that hadn’t shown any real life for a few weeks was *this close* to edging out one of the best teams in CUSA.
Then the Owls got two sacks in three plays to force an overtime field goal from UAB, followed by a failed goal-line stand that led to a game-winning touchdown for Rice.
A hard-fought game against a quality opponent, something you could really sell to your fans.
Except that was the problem; this game took place in front of an announced attendance of 5,831 people. Some teams use tickets sold, some use turnstile turns, but when attendance is that low it really doesn’t matter.
I can’t imagine how the Blazer football team must have felt to play that hard, against that good of a team – one they were given little shot at winning – and to have so few people actually be there and supporting them in the process.
Of course, nothing happens in a vacuum, and everything you do is both affected by and has an effect on every other thing you do. So imagine how those Blazers felt to show up to Legion Field again the next week, facing off against Southern Miss – their other strong rival – and to face another crowd of only 6,383 people.
Now, in this instance, a low attendance number would be expected. UAB was in a bit of a tailspin, having lost five in a row and three by three touchdowns or more, and they were the better team in this matchup. Southern Miss entered this game having lost four in a row to UAB and 23 in a row overall, with not a single win to show for Larry Fedora’s departure after the 2011 Hawaii Bowl.
But low is one thing; this is back-to-back weeks of a 72,000 seat stadium being less than 10% capacity.
That’s okay, though. The Blazers may not have had anyone there but the truly faithful, but they were going to close the season out with a flourish, pushing Southern Miss’ streak of losing to 24 while salvaging something by beating the worst team on their schedule.
And then the game started.
Once again the offense had its issues, and the defense allowed the Golden Eagles to go 75 yards for a touchdown on their opening drive. A strong defense started to show out as the half wore on, though, and Southern Miss only managed two more field goals the rest of the half, while UAB scored several touchdowns to take a 21-13 halftime lead.
I don’t know what happened in the locker room at halftime, but all hell broke loose after that.
UAB’s offense managed two punts, two fumbles, a missed field goal and a turnover on downs in seven offensive drives. Southern Miss, meanwhile, produced seven touchdowns in eight drives, with the last two touchdowns coming off a turnover on downs at the UAB 19 and a fumble that set them up around midfield for their final score.
Nick Mullens was an absurd 10-for-13 for 172 yards and four touchdowns in the second half, and that measly crowd that started the game was essentially nothing by the time a Southern Miss team which showed no mercy kicked their 62nd point through the uprights.
It was the culmination of a lot of things, but losing 62-27 at home in front of 6,400 fans to a team that hadn’t won in two years did nobody any favors. It caused Garrick McGee to get a phone call from Bobby Petrino to rejoin him as a coach on his new Louisville team and say “I’ll be there yesterday.” But more importantly, what had been seen in the weeks prior meant that this game was the final nail in a coffin that was slammed shut on the Thursday after Thanksgiving.
Sure, there was another season after this, but as we all learned after the fact, the shutdown that occurred a year later was put in motion long before then, likely in response to the spiraling kamikaze plane that administrators perceived this season and this program to have become.
But there’s a lot more to that story to be told in the future.