UAB legit? You better UABelieve it
Leave it to Spencer Brown to carry the ball one final time. After pounding the rock 30 times for 149 yards in a clock-draining, soul-sucking, program-defining C-USA Championship lockdown of favored Marshall, the senior record-setter faced a big-picture question.
What are you trying to prove to this nation about UAB football?
Brown, a man of few words and many yards, more career yards than anyone who's worn the green and gold, more yards than any active FBS back not named Travis Etienne, cut to the chase.
"UAB legit. That's it."
Carve it in the cornerstone of Protective Stadium.
Of course, to anyone who was paying attention, UAB's legitimacy was obvious long before Friday night, but UAB 22, Marshall 13 put the star on the evergreen Bill Clark and company have grown deep in the heart of the SEC forest.
Four seasons removed from the grave, the big picture is a painting, the kind local artist extraordinaire Steve Skipper brings to life to hang in the Birmingham Museum of Art. Paint by these numbers: Four straight winning seasons. Three consecutive division titles. Two of the last three Conference USA championships, both secured on the other team's home field, the latest one capping a season from hell that included the longest COVID layoff of any program in the country.
For the longest time, it looked like this UAB team wouldn't get enough starts to qualify for the championship game. The pandemic sidelined the Blazers every single scheduled game day between Halloween and Dec. 12, cancelling four straight games. When they finally were able to get back on the field against an actual opponent a week ago, they had to travel to dangerous Rice with a shell of their usual roster.
But hey, what's a must-win game when you've risen from the dead? Of course the Blazers survived to secure the division title and a trip to the conference championship game. Of course the opponent waiting there was Marshall.
Marshall, a place they'd never won. Marshall, a team they'd never beaten here, there or anywhere. Marshall, the team that broke their hearts in the last home game of 2014 before their own administration, with the support of their own board of trustees, ripped their hearts out and shut them down.
After coming up just short against that 2014 undefeated and ranked Marshall team, Clark offered this prophetic thought: "I think you saw what Birmingham's about today. It could be special if we want to do it right."
Mission accomplished with a dash of retribution. If revenge is a dish best served cold, imagine how delicious it was to shut down the Thundering Herd in their own backyard. On a frigid night when the home team and home crowd could see their breath, the visitors breathed nothing but fire.
The defense didn't let Marshall's hotshot quarterback complete a single pass in the first half, if you don't count the interception he threw to UAB safety Grayson Cash. Punter Kyle Greenwell kept Marshall pinned deep. Kicker Matt Quinn was money from 30, 42 and 48 yards.
Wide receiver/secret weapon Trea Shropshire shifted to full Roddy White mode, catching five balls for 180 yards, including the 71-yard spin, grab and dash with 4 minutes left that provided the final separation. Quarterback Tyler Johnston III, wounded and sidelined earlier in the season, did what he usually does with a trophy on the line. He put his fingerprints all over it.
And then there was Brown, earning his second C-USA Championship Game MVP award by grinding behind an undeniable offensive line that allowed the Blazers to keep the ball for a dominating 41:26 of the game's 60 minutes. It doesn't get any more old-school satisfying than that.
If every championship, like every child, is different, this one has to have a special place in Clark's heart. He, his staff and their players had to overcome cancellations, injuries, quarantines, opt-outs and the one-and-only loss at Legion Field since The Return. A lesser program would've buckled. The Blazers simply, methodically buckled up and inevitably buckled down.
Wasn't always pretty. Wasn't ever easy. All it was was legit.