When standout Joe Webb waived bye-bye to Birmingham and went off to the NFL, UAB coach Neil Callaway needed a replacement at the quarterback position.
With nine starters back on the defense and eight on the offense, perhaps they could score enough points to win six games in a season for the first time since 2004 if another running quarterback could be successful for the 2010 season.
Last season, backup quarterback David Isabelle finished the season as UAB’s second leading rusher behind Webb, so why not continue the tradition and make him the starter over junior Bryan Ellis?
There was only one problem: Isabelle wasn’t proven as an effective passer.
UAB opened up against Florida Atlantic and outgained the Owls by 77 yards, but Isabelle completed just nine of 19 passes for 79 yards. However, he broke a UAB rushing record for quarterbacks by running for 214 yards on 22 carries.
Florida Atlantic’s defense returned an interception for a touchdown, and the Owls may have lost the game if their special teams didn’t come through with a blocked field goal on UAB’s last offensive play of the game.
Coach Callaway knew he had a good running quarterback, but he needed Isabelle to be a better passer or opposing defenses might have too easy of a time with such a predictable offense.
That’s what happened at SMU.
The Mustangs were ready for UAB’s dual-threat quarterback and shut him down for most of the day. Isabelle completed just eight of 15 passes, and SMU’s defense studied enough film to smother his ground game, limiting him to just 34 yards on 16 rushing attempts. UAB lost the game 28-7.
UAB then came home to play a tough Troy team and fell behind 16-0, with Isabelle completing just two of his first eight passes. Coach Callaway decided it was time to make a change at quarterback.
As Conference USA play gets under way, that change may have been just what the Blazers needed.
Bryan Ellis, in relief of Isabelle, led his team to 34 points and 423 yards of offense the rest of the way. Unlike the FAU game, where they lost on the last play of the game, this time the Blazers won on the last play of the game when Ellis completed a 44-yard touchdown pass to Jackie Williams as time expired.
Coach Callaway seemingly had his quarterback problem solved. Heading into Knoxville for a tough game with Tennessee, perhaps he would figure out a way to incorporate the talents of both Isabelle and Ellis together.
That’s exactly what he did.
UAB went into Neyland Stadium and dominated Tennessee in virtually every phase of the game. Ellis started at quarterback and threw for 373 yards, while Isabelle took a few snaps and was also used to run the ball and gain yardage in certain key situations.
Both Isabelle and Ellis ripped apart the Tennessee defense, and UAB probably would have won the game if kicker Josh Zahn hadn't missed four field goals in regulation. The Blazers nearly doubled up the Vols in offensive yardage, gaining 544 yards while Tennessee managed just 287 yards.
UAB lost the game when Tennessee quarterback Matt Simms completed a 25-yard touchdown pass to Denarius Moore on the Vols’ first possession in overtime, but Coach Callaway was left with a winning recipe for success once conference play begins.
It begins with a game at Central Florida against a Knights team that is void of running back Brynn Harvey, who rushed for 1,100 yards last season. That might be the break UAB’s defense needs, as the unit is allowing 405 yards per game. However, Central Florida has scored a total of four touchdowns in its four FBS games. They got just one offensive touchdown against both Buffalo and Kansas State.
Central Florida has the better defense, but UAB, who has lost two games on the last play, now has a potentially explosive offense and is a better team than its record indicates.
Through all this, the Blazers will head into Orlando as about a 12-point underdog in a game where there are few indications pointing to a blowout.
Take the points!