WHO: No. 20 Appalachian State (12-1) vs. UAB (9-4)
WHAT: The 19th R+L New Orleans Bowl
WHEN: December 21st at 9:00 p.m. ET on ESPN
WHERE: Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana
THE SKINNY: For the second striaght season, Appalachian State is playing in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl as the Sun Belt Conference champion. The Mountaineers certainly enjoyed their experience in this bowl game last season with a 45-13 victory over Middle Tennessee of Conference USA. This year, the Mountaineers face another team from Conference USA when they face UAB for the first time.
Appalachian State will be coached by Shawn Clark, who was elevated to head coach following the departure of Eli Drinkowitz to Missouri. Don’t expect a bunch to change amid the coaching change. The Mountaineers have been betaing up on opponents all season long, including hard-fought wins against power conference opponents South Carolina and North Carolina. The offense is led by experienced starting quarterback Zac Thomas, a junior who has thrown for 2,576 yards and 26 touchdowns and run for 412 yards and seven touchdowns. The Mountaineers like to use their power as their strength. Helping that cause is running back Darrynton Evans, who has rushed for 1,323 yards and 17 touchdowns. Of all the Group of 5 programs outside of the top teams in the AAC or Boise State, Appalachian State may have the best offensive line going, and they have the physicality that could make for a tough battle for even the top teams in the Group of 5. If not for one slipup in conference play against rival Georgia Southern, Appalachian State might be the team heading to the Cotton Bowl instead of Memphis.
Bill Clark has done a tremendous job with the UAB program, and he and the Blazers are looking forward to moving on from a disappointing showing in the Conference USA Championship Game. FAU humbled UAB in a 49-6 blowout for the C-USA championship, and Clark will be the first to admit his team was not ready for the game. UAB may be lacking firepower on offense (just 23.6 points per game this season), so it is up to the defense to keep the game within reach for an upset. UAB has held opponents to an average of 20.8 ppg this season, although the overall competition faced wasn’t exactly like taking on offenses like Clemson and Ohio State, or even Memphis and Boise State. On offense, clock management will rely on moving the ball on the ground with Spencer Brown and avoiding any mistakes from quarterback Tyler Johnston III (15 touchdown passes, 14 interceptions this season).
This might have been a more competitive game two years ago, but this one could get away from UAB in a hurry. Appalachian State has been on a roll and that looks to continue for a second consecutive New Orleans Bowl.
THE PICK: Appalachian State 38, UAB 17
The most successful football season in UAB history now has its crowning achievement. A week after losing on the same field in the regular season finale, UAB celebrated a 27-25 victory at Middle Tennessee in the Conference USA championship game. In its second season back after a brief shutdown of the entire football program, UAB is a conference champion.
UAB’s defense came up with the critical fourth down stop at the UAB 46-yard line as a pass from Middle Tennessee quarterback Brent Stockstill fell incomplete in good coverage. UAB was unable to run out the clock though, so the defense would have had to make one more stop of the Blue Raiders in the final minute of the game. But Middle Tennessee lined up with 12 men on the field on the fourth down before UAB snapped for a punt, and UAB was awarded a free first down. With no more timeouts to use, Middle Tennessee could not stop the clock and UAB ran out the clock.
UAB got a big day from running back Spencer Brown, who rushed for 156 yards and a touchdown. Quarterback Tyler Johnston III passed for 140 yards and rushed for 56 yards while accounting for two total touchdowns. UAB really held firm inside the red zone on defense, forcing Middle Tennessee to settle for field goals on each of their first two possessions of the game and doing so once again in the fourth quarter. Success in the red zone for UAB managed to make up for giving up 456 yards of offense, including 362 through the air off the arm of Brent Stockstill.
Enough can not be said about the job Bill Clark has done at UAB. The head coach of the program for one year before the university shut the program down, Clark stuck with the program as it became clear the program would return after a brief hiatus. To take a program that was shut down to a conference championship in a span of four years is absolutely incredible and why Clark should not only be hearing some phone calls from schools in search of a head coach but also should be considered for some coach of the year honors.
UAB will now play in their second straight bowl game in as many years, and the Blazers will look for the first bowl victory in school history (0-2 all-time in bowl games). An official bowl announcement is pending, although a matchup with Sun Belt champion Appalachian State in the New Orleans Bowl would be a fun matchup.
Looking for the first conference championship in school history, UAB is leading Middle Tennessee at halftime of the Conference USA championship game, 24-16. UAB had scored 21 straight points in the half before Middle Tennessee closed out the first half with a field goal.
The two teams traded field goals to open the game, and Middle Tennessee tacked on another field goal to take a 6-3 lead on the third offensive possession of the game. Middle Tennessee extended their lead with Brent Stockstill connected with Tavares Thomas on a fourth-and-four play on the UAB 19-yard line for a score.
UAB answered the first touchdown of the game with a touchdown drive of their own. The Blazers took 16 plays to travel 75 yards to get in the end zone. Spencer Brown capped the drive with a two-yard touchdown run to bring UAB within three points after the extra point attempt by Nick Vogel. UAB took the lead with just over four minutes to play in the half with Tyler Johnston finding a streaking Andre Wilson for a 40-yard touchdown.
UAB added to their lead less than a minute later by turning a Stockstill interception into a short touchdown run by Johnston three plays later.
This is certainly still anyone’s game at halftime. UAB will get the ball to start the second half.