Murfreesboro, Tenn. - Tavares Thomas sat motionless on the bench, staring into space as the final seconds ticked off the clock. Zack Dobson said to a teammate leaving the field that he felt sick to his stomach. Minutes later the emotions poured out from their head coach on the podium of the Globe Life Conference USA Championship press conference. This was not how this day or this season was supposed to end for Middle Tennessee.
But moments after its 27-25 loss to UAB the realization sunk in for the long time Blue Raiders head coach. It was a special season full of eight wins, but if fell one victory shy of a championship season.
“Congrats to UAB on winning a good hard fought game," a visibly shaken Middle Tennessee head coach Rick Stockstill said after the game. "Proud of my seniors. Sorry I'm emotional, we fight our tails off, we competed our tails off, we just couldn't get it done. But that's a helluva football team."
His players gave it their all. One week after beating UAB 27-3 to clinch the East Division, the Blue Raiders met a healthier Blazers team with the championship game.
The two teams went back and forth with Middle jumping to a 13-3 lead, UAB running off 21 straight points, then the Blue Raiders reclaiming the lead briefly in the fourth quarter.
Nick Vogel’s 28-yard field goal with 3:23 to go gave the Blazers the lead for good. But MTSU was not without its chances.
Brent Stockstill quickly drove the Blue Raiders from their own 25 across midfield, appearing to set things up for a storybook ending. The sixth-year QB had another banner day, throwing for 362 yards and his 104th and 105th career touchdown passes, tying Marcus Mariota for 20th all-time in college football. It would have been fitting if the 106th delivered MTSU and his dad their first conference championship.
But Middle Tennessee struggled to finish drives all day. It settled for field goals four times in five trips into the red zone, and on fourth and six with less than two minutes left Stockstill’s pass fell incomplete.
“We were all confident and moved the ball to the 50," Brent Stockstill said. "But we kind of stalled out and I didn't do a good enough job getting the guys the ball."
The Blue Raiders looked like they would get one last chance after forcing a quick three and out. But coming out of a timeout they had 12 men on the field for the punt return and were flagged for having too many men on the field, gifting the Blazers a first down and a chance to kneel out the rest of the clock.
Fighting back tears with his Brent by his side along with other players as he spoke with the media after the game, Rick Stockstill took all of the blame for the mistake.
“It was my fault," the elder Stockstill said. "If anything goes wrong it's my fault. We had too many players on the field, it's my fault. It's not the players' fault, it's my fault. Nobody else's."
That penalty prevented Stockstill from having the ball in his hands one more time at Floyd Stadium, sentencing the Blue Raiders to perhaps their most painful loss ever. Because that's the thing about these championship games, as fantastic as the feeling is when you win them, the feeling of losing in one may be even lower.
"I hate it for all these seniors," safety Reid Blankenship said. "I have a really close relationship with all of them and it just hurts me and makes me sick to see them cry because I feel like I didn't do enough."
UAB's victory caps the remarkable comeback story of a football program that was shuttered in 2014 and sat quiet for two years before being reinstated ahead of last season. The Blazers’ ability to win the conference title in just their second year back is one of the truly incredible stories in all of sports.
But on Saturday the final chapter of the Blazers’ comeback prevented the storybook ending for Middle Tennessee. There is still a bowl game to come and the chance to win nine games, but that first championship will have to wait.
“It's tough. You put six years into this, it's tough," Brent Stockstill said while pausing to collect himself. "You get this championship feel, it makes the bowl game seem a lot less (important). This is the one that you want. This one will sting for awhile.