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BIRMINGHAM – Predicting what’s to come in college football is rarely safe to do after the opening possession of a game.
On Saturday, though, the game’s opening series was indeed an indication of what was to follow during UAB’s 41-14 victory over Middle Tennessee in the Children’s Harbor Homecoming Game at Protective Stadium.
Trea Shropshire had catches of 44 yards and 12 yards on the first two plays. DeWayne McBride had runs of nine yards and five yards on the next two plays. His second run ended in the end zone. UAB had a 7-0 lead after Matt Quinn’s extra point.
It was that quick. It was that easy. It was a sign of things to come.
“It’s very important, it’s critical, to be honest,” said UAB head coach Bryant Vincent. “Our kids feed off each other, offense, defense and special teams. To be able to go down and hit the first play of the game. We wanted to take a shot on the first play of the game and I thought Trea Shropshire made a great adjustment on that ball. I think it was just a statement, is what it was. It was a statement that we were here and we were ready to go. We feed off each other.”
Officially, UAB (3-2 overall, 1-1 C-USA) had seven first half possessions. The final one began with about 30 seconds left on the clock and the Blazers ran out the clock on the play. The other six possessions ended in UAB points with five of those culminating in touchdowns. The Blazers had 439 yards in first half offense, which was more than they gained in all but one complete game this season.
At halftime, UAB quarterback Dylan Hopkins was 15 of 21 for 265 yards with a 68-yard touchdown to Shropshire that closed the first half scoring and gave UAB a 38-7 advantage. Shropshire had six receptions for 193 yards. Jermaine Brown, Jr. had 105 rushing yards with a touchdown, McBride added 55 yards and three touchdowns and the Blazers had a total of 174 rushing yards against a defense that allowed 107 rushing yards per game. The Blazers also were not penalized on offense in the first half.
A quick reminder, this was the first half output.
“We knew that they were going to come in and load the box,” Vincent said. “We knew that they were going to try to get nine guys around the line of scrimmage. Their safeties were sitting at 8 to 9 yards the whole night. That’s why you saw a lot of shots early.”
By the end of the day, UAB had a season-high 581 yards in offense with 303 yards rushing and 278 yards passing. The Blazers had a pair of rushers eclipse the 100-yard mark in McBride (120 yards on 12 carries) and Brown (114 yards on 10 carries). The Blazers also had five wide receivers and tight end Bryce Damous catch at least one pass with Hopkins finishing 17-of-27 for 278 yards.
“I think we’ve got a lot of confidence in our offensive line and our tight ends, running the football,” Vincent said. “We’ve got multiple great backs. Today, you saw it all come together with our tight ends and our receivers being able to keep us balanced. That’s what we want to be, 60-40, run to pass. That 40 percent, if they load it up to stop the run, we want to make them pay. That’s what you saw today. I guess it's been a couple weeks, I’ve had a bunch of questions on when are we going to be balanced, when are we going to be balanced. Well, we were balanced today and that’s what we have to continue to build on.”
The balance carried over to the defense, where the Blazers were facing an offense that is built on getting big chunk plays. The Blue Raiders had 507 yards offense, including more than 400 yards passing, two weeks ago in a national-attention-grabbing win at Miami.
On Saturday, the Blazers limited the Blue Raiders to 130 yards on 33 offensive plays in the first half. The Blazers defense also had an interception by Grayson Cash, a fourth down stop and limited the Blue Raiders to 3-of-7 on third down. Keondre Swoopes had nine tackles in the first half and the Blazers had a pair of sacks.
Middle Tennessee finished with 336 yards but most of it came after the outcome was decided. The Blue Raiders were limited in big plays, though, with the longest play of the day gaining 23 yards.
“We knew we were going to get tested,” said Swoopes, who ended with a career-best 14 tackles. “We’ve been practicing real hard this week, emphasis on big plays. That’s what gets their offense going. Once they get those big plays, it’s starts (moving). We took away the big plays and made it a run game. Not too much happens when teams try to run the ball on us.”
Vincent said a big key was the plan put together by defensive coordinator David Reeves and the defensive staff.
“We brought another DB in because we knew they wanted to throw the ball,” Vincent said. “The biggest thing we said all week was we want to bend but don’t break. Don’t give them the big plays over the top. Give them the five-yard hitches, give them the underneath slants, we’ll rally to them and tackle them. We felt like if we continue to do that, we’ll hopefully get them to throw a couple of interceptions. I’m extremely proud of our defensive staff.”
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