Huskies drop Boca Bowl to Blazers

By James Krause

The football team couldn’t keep up with the passing game of the University of Alabama-Birmingham Blazers, losing the Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl by a final score of 37-13.

A weekend celebration of their season and their graduating players ended with the loss at FAU Stadium Tuesday night.

Head Coach Rod Carey said the loss is tough for a team that hoped to send the graduates off with a win.

“It’s tough to see these seniors leave like this,” Carey said. “It’s a special group of seniors and it hurts to end their careers on this one. They went from seeing us win a conference championship in 2014 to not making a bowl game in 2016 to returning to a bowl last year to winning the MAC this year and that’s not easy to do.”

The loss makes Carey 0-4 in his career in bowl games, with NIU not having won a bowl game since 2011.

Related: Huskies to play in Boca Raton Bowl

Carey said that play and coaching were not on pace to stop the Blazers, who themselves won their first bowl game in program history.

“The bottom line is it wasn’t good enough,” Carey said. “We didn’t coach good enough, we didn’t play good enough. We have to own it. Only 13 points, that’s not winning football.”

In just his fifth college start, UAB first-year quarterback Tyler Johnston III threw for 373 yards on 17-for-29 passing, topping it off with four touchdowns.

Meanwhile, the Huskies failed to sack the quarterback for the first time this season. They entered the game with 50 team sacks to lead the nation.

Johnston got a huge boost from senior wide receiver Xavier Ubosi, who had seven receptions, 227 yards and three touchdowns. Ubosi is the first receiver to catch for 200 yards or more against NIU since 2006.

Carey said with better passing defense, the Huskies could have found themselves a better chance to win.

“We gave up 21 points on three ‘go’ balls,” Carey said.  “Without those, it’s a 16-13 game in the fourth quarter and I like our chances.”

Johnston didn’t waste any time putting NIU’s defense on notice, going deep for Ubosi for a 70-yard touchdown pass on the opening play from scrimmage.

The Blazers offense slowed down on their next possession, but still moved the ball effectively. A 13 play, 70-yard drive set up kicker Nick Vogel for a successful 25-yard field goal. With the field goal, UAB took an early 10-0 lead.

After struggling on the first two UAB possessions, the Huskies defense finally madea stop, thanks to a tackle for a loss by junior defensive end Sutton Smith.

UAB punter Kyle Greenwell put NIU in good field position after his punt went only 12 yards, setting up NIU at their own 41.

The Huskies took advantage of the mistake, sparking a drive that ended with a one yard touchdown run from sophomore running back Tre Harbison. The touchdown shrunk UAB’s lead to 10-7 at the end of the first quarter.

Harbison finished the game with 49 yards on the ground, making him the first Huskie to rush for 1,000 yards in a season since 2015.

The Blazers found themselves with good field position to start their next possession thanks to an Andre Wilson kickoff return setting UAB up near midfield.

Sophomore running back Spencer Brown and the Blazers capitalized on the field position when Brown caught a three-yard shovel pass for a touchdown. The Blazers led 17-7.

After the Blazers attacked NIU’s secondary early, sophomore quarterback Marcus Childers returned the favor by connecting with junior wide receiver Spencer Tears and senior tight end Ty Harmston on long passes downfield.

Childers looked for senior wide receiver DJ Brown in the endzone, but the pass was broken up, forcing NIU to settle for a senior kicker Andrew Gantz 27-yard field goal.

Related: Huskies win MAC Championship against Buffalo

NIU’s defense looked to have forced the Blazers off the field, but a running into the kicker penalty on the punt set up UAB for a short fourth down. Brown converted with a 2-yard run to give UAB a first down.

The Blazers capitalized after a misstep at the line of scrimmage by senior cornerback Tifonte Hunt, who played despite a lingering wrist injury, allowing Johnston to find a wide open Ubosi for a 46-yard touchdown.

Childers, with time ticking down in the half, committed the game’s first turnover with a fumble following a bad snap that the Blazers recovered. UAB used the turnover to set up a Vogel 35-yard field goal to put the Blazers up 27-10 at halftime.

The NIU offense received the ball to start the second half, putting together a long drive thanks to multiple UAB penalties and a fourth down conversion near midfield.

The drive took over seven minutes off the game clock. An incomplete pass intended for Tears was the closest the Huskies got to the endzone. NIU settled for a 21-yard field goal to make the score 27-13 UAB.

The Blazers offense came out swinging following the long drive by NIU. Johnston hurled another touchdown pass 66-yards to Ubosi. A late Vogel 42-yard field goal put UAB up 37-13 at the end of the third quarter.

NIU turned the ball on downs on its next possession, and the window for another comeback seemed to be closing with the Blazers just needing to take time off the clock.

The Blazers took a chance by looking to Johnston to pass again with 11:27 remaining, but a junior safety and Florida native Mykelti Williams interception kept NIU’s hopes alive.

With a drive starting at the UAB 29, the Huskies found themselves knocking on the door of the endzone on fourth and goal with only two yards to go.

First year running back Jordan Nettles came within inches of the score, but a hit by sophomore linebacker Luke Brasher forced a fumble into the endzone. The ball was recovered by the Blazers for a touchback, denying the Huskies once again.

The Blazers ran off more clock, giving NIU the ball with only 2:15 remaining and sealing the game for their first bowl win in program history.

For the Huskies, who finish with an 8-6 record, the loss will linger with them into the offseason, spring and summer camps, until next August when the 2019 campaign starts.