Sometimes the first play from scrimmage is a mirage for what’s to come, like Ted Ginn, Jr.’s opening kickoff touchdown in the 2007 BCS National Championship. Other times, it tells the entire story.
When Tyler Johnston hit Xavier Ubosi for a 70-yard touchdown pass on the first play of Tuesday night’s Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl, it told you pretty much all you needed to know. Johnston would hook up with Ubosi for two more long touchdown passes throughout the night, and UAB blasted Northern Illinois, 37-13.
The win bolstered what was already the best season in school history for Bill Clark‘s Blazers. Just two years back from the dead, UAB had already secured its first conference championship and its first 10-win season; now, the program has its first bowl win to boot.
The Boca Raton Bowl was one of just three bowl games pitting conference champions against each other, the others being the Orange (SEC vs. Big 12) and Rose (Big Ten vs. Pac-12) bowls.
UAB (11-3) came into the game averaging less than 200 passing yards per game, but the redshirt freshman Johnston went off for easily the best game of his young career, hitting 17-of-28 passes for 373 yards with four touchdowns and an interception. The bulk of the damage went to Ubosi, who snared seven passes for 227 yards and three touchdowns. Ubosi entered the game with 28 grabs for 610 yards and five touchdowns, including four catches for 24 yards in his two most recent games.
After the 70-yard score put UAB up 7-0 (and, it turns out, for good), the Johnston-to-Ubosi connection put the game away for good with 5:11 to go in the second quarter with a 46-yard strike that gave the Blazers a 24-10 lead.
A 66-yard bomb at the 5:15 mark of the third quarter concluded Ubosi’s night and gave UAB a 34-13 lead. Johnston’s other touchdown pass was a 3-yard shovel to running back Spencer Brown at the 12:08 mark of the second quarter, turning a 10-7 UAB lead back into a comfortable 10-point spread.
As the score indicates, Northern Illinois (8-6) struggled to get anything going offensively. Marcus Childers completed 22 of his 29 passes but gained just 179 yards on those completions. NIU entered the night with the nation’s 118th most efficient passing attack, so a 6.2 yards per attempt average wouldn’t necessarily spell doom as long as the Huskies managed to run the ball, but that was a struggle as well. Against UAB’s top-20 rushing defense, NIU mustered just 108 yards on 44 carries. Tre Harbison tied Childers for the team lead with 35 yards (he had a team-high six yards at halftime) and scored the Huskies’ lone touchdown, a 1-yarder to pull them within 10-7 in the final minute of the first quarter.
Given a chance to add a cosmetic score midway through the fourth quarter, Jordan Nettles fumbled a 4th-and-goal run out the side of the end zone.