When it mattered most, UAB finally acted like champions
On a banner night at Legion Field, with new decorations unveiled to celebrate an unprecedented conference championship and an inaugural bowl victory, two things came clear as college football returned to Birmingham for a Magic City Kickoff Classic.
Alabama State isn't Savannah State - and UAB 2019 isn't UAB 2018.
Not yet and not by a long shot, but take heart, Ever Loyalists. There's plenty of time in this young season and no shortage of talent on this fresh roster.
Opening games are often uneasy. UAB 24, Alabama State 19 was Stephen King scary for the home team, which never led by more than 11 points and entered the fourth quarter with only a one-score lead.
It was almost as if UAB was replacing 30-something grizzled veterans off the program's first championship team while entering only its third season after a two-year shutdown. How quickly a championship ring can make you forget the cold, hard facts of life.
Things got Pennywise frightening down the stretch. With 10 minutes left, ASU ran to a first-and-goal at the UAB 5. Staring up at those new championship banners above the end zone, the Hornets were 5 yards away from punching a hole in them and taking the lead. The Blazers were one missed tackle, a single missed assignment shy of needing a comeback unlike any they'd pulled off since #TheReturn.
And then a not-so-strange thing happened on the way to what would've been the worst loss of the Bill Clark era. After a night of missteps and false starts, the Blazers acted like champions.
First, they conjured up the spirit of great UAB defenses past, like last year's stone-cold shutdown bunch and the old Steel Shield. Four times the Hornets ran it, and four times the Blazers stuffed them, with Noah Wilder leading the charge on fourth-and-goal from the 1.
The UAB offense did its part, crunching six minutes off the clock and driving off the goal line toward midfield, where the drive stalled but a punt put Alabama State 83 yards away from a historic victory.
The Hornets pushed back across midfield, aided by UAB's eighth penalty of the night, but then … a pass … a tip … and a Will Boler interception put down the insurgency with 56 seconds left.
At last, it was time to U … A … Breathe.
A lot of wise men figured this would be more of a rebuilding year for UAB than 2017, and the Blazers reinforced those realistic expectations Thursday night. For almost every positive development, there was a counterpoint.
A Myron Mitchell 98-yard explosion for a kick return touchdown - followed by a dropped pass behind the defense with another sure TD in sight.
A Devodric Bynum pick-six nullified by (pick one) his own pass interference penalty or a Garrett Marino unsportsmanlike flag for woofing in the fallen quarterback's face.
Clark's good, bad and ugly reel from this game film may be longer than The Godfather I and II.
Overall, this FBS vs. FCS mismatch on paper was far too close for far too long, which is as much a compliment to the Hornets as an indictment of the Blazers. The visitors refused to be the same soft-centered opening-game snack as Savannah State a year ago.
This wasn't the wall-to-wall dance party UAB fans might've expected, despite the emphatic electric presence of the ASU Mighty Marching Hornets. The surprisingly stagnant UAB running game wishes it had moved like that.
But a vaguely unsatisfying victory is still a victory, and if any of the UAB fans among the 39,165 in attendance - the third-largest home crowd in program history - walked away disappointed, good. It means things have changed around here for the better. It means barely good enough against an overmatched opponent, even an in-state opponent that played with an edge it usually brings to the Magic City Classic, isn't good enough.
It means much respect for the Hornets and much work to do for the Blazers.