Despite being conference mates since 2013, the UTSA Roadrunners and Western Kentucky Hilltoppers rarely play each other. The teams had met only once before this contest, but Conference USA might want to start scheduling more matchups after last night’s game.
Offense sells, and UTSA and Western Kentucky put on an absolute thriller offensive performance. The Tops nearly had 700 yards of offense, while UTSA tallied over 550 yards. Combined, the teams accumulated 1264 total yards of offense and nearly 900 of those yards were amassed through the air. As was likely expected, UTSA’s defense could not contain Bailey Zappe but Western Kentucky’s defense could not contain Frank Harris either. The result was a true duel between quarterbacks.
Zappe completed 38 of 60 passes for 523 yards, 5 touchdowns, and 1 interception. Harris completed 28 of 38 passes for 349 yards, 6 touchdowns, 1 interception, and 1 forced fumble. Harris also caught 1 touchdown on a trick play. The defenses could simply not stop either quarterback from carving them up all night. Even so, it would be a defensive stop—an interception by UTSA linebacker Clarence Hicks—that would seal the win for the Roadrunners and the best start in program history.
Here is how the game went.
Both Zappe and Harris started the game hot. UTSA started with possession and scored within 47 seconds, connecting with wide receiver Joshua Cephus for 40 yards and then connecting with wide receiver De’Corian “JT” Clark on a 30 yard-pass to the corner of the endzone.
Zappe would immediately respond, throwing a 33-yard pass on his first attempt to Daewood Davis. The offense then stalled after trying to establish a running game, and the Tops settled for a 34-yard field goal from Brayden Narveson. But after allowing UTSA to score again on its next possession, Zappe and the WKU offense would methodically march down the field, converting three times on 3rd down, and scored on a wide receiver screen to Jerreth Sterns for 3 yards. It was the type of slow, drawn-out drive that UTSA is known to do, with the Tops running and passing the ball effectively for short gains to tire UTSA’s defense.
The quarter ended: UTSA 14, Western Kentucky 10.
The second quarter was just as offense heavy as the first. The teams swapped leads three times and both sides would find the endzone twice. Once again Western Kentucky methodically marched down the field, passing and running the ball, and then scored on a 10-yard run by running back Adam Cofield to take a 17-14 lead.
This was a bit unexpected. Prior to the game WKU’s running offense had been woeful, managing less than 100 yards a game and had scored only 3 touchdowns. But against UTSA the running game picked up, and the hilltoppers would end the night with 147 total rushing yards. This drive and the previous drive were big reasons why.
UTSA then opened its own running game. Running backs Sincere McCormick and BJ Daniels each broke off big runs and the Roadrunners marched themselves back down the field. UTSA would then retake the lead on a trick play, a pass back to Harris from Cephus that Harris took 23-yards into the endzone.
After the game head coach Jeff Traylor said the Roadrunners “emptied every bullet we had” in their playbook, and this play is clearly proof this was true.
But Zappe and WKU’s offense could not be stopped and the Hilltoppers would immediately regain the lead. Zappe found wide receiver Dalvin Smith for a 33-yard touchdown pass and score was: Western Kentucky 24, UTSA 21.
The Roadrunners would score on their next possession to again retake the lead behind Harris, who seemed to carry this offensive possession on his back. Harris made play after play that benefited the Roadrunners: he (1) scrambled for a 1st down conversion on 4th-and-7, (2) fumbled the ball back into his hands as he ran out of bounds to retain possession and avoid a negative play, (3) threw an interception off a tipped pass and then caused the fumble to regain possession, and then (4) threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Oscar Cardenas to regain the lead. It was an insane offensive possession for the Roadrunners, and it showed exactly how invaluable Harris is to the team.
With 40 seconds left the score was: UTSA 28, Western Kentucky 24. But that was plenty of time for Zappe to get downfield to try and scored before the half. But Narveson would miss a 55-yard FG try and the score would remain going into halftime.
The halftime stats were a bit surprising given how these teams matched up and it showed just how even the two teams were. UTSA had more total yards (311) than WKU (296), had more passing yards (220) than WKU (201) but had fewer rushing yards (91) than WKU (95) and was losing the time of possession (14:00) to WKU (16:00). Each team had one turnover from the odd Harris interception/fumble play and only UTSA had a penalty.
Western Kentucky started with possession but stalled after two penalties—an offensive hold and an illegal touch—before punting the ball for the first time all game. But UTSA muffed the punt and WKU recovered giving Zappe another opportunity to retake the lead. He would do just that by converting a 3rd-and-10 from UTSA’s 24-yard line into a touchdown pass to wide receiver Malachi Corley. Western Kentucky retook the lead, 31-28, but it would be the last time the Hilltoppers lead the Roadrunners.
The rest of the quarter saw UTSA take firmer control of the game. On its first drive UTSA converted another 4th down and Harris connected again with DJ Clark for a 44-yard catch and then an 18-yard score. The defense would force WKU’s first 3-and-out of the game and UTSA would again drive down the field, this time behind strong running by McCormick, and would convert another 4th down into points when Harris found Cephus in the endzone.
It seemed UTSA had finally gained some control over the game. The Roadrunner defense was also getting better control, forcing two punts earlier and then forcing a turnover of downs.
But Zappe and WKU’s offense is 1st in the country for a reason, and on their next possession the Hilltoppers would score in just 33 seconds. Starting from his own 5-yard line, Zappe first found Sterns for a monster 55-yard gain and then found wide receiver Mitchell Tinsley for a 40-yard touchdown pass.
The Hilltoppers were unable to convert a 2-point play and the third quarter ended: UTSA 42, WKU 37
UTSA marched down field courtesy of two pass interference penalties against WKU but the Roadrunners had to settle for a field goal. Zappe then quickly marched WKU downfield on their offensive possession. In classic fashion Zappe completed three 20-yard plus passes in a row, finding Tinsley twice for a 21-yard and 23-yard gain, and then connecting with Sterns on a 20-yard touchdown score. But a second failed 2-point conversion stopped the Hilltoppers from tying the game.
It seemed Western Kentucky was a few plays away from taking the lead. UTSA needed to score touchdowns, not field goals, if the team wanted to seal the win. Harris would do just that on UTSA’s next possession, finding DJ Clark for the third time on a 43-yard score.
Have a game, J.T.— UTSA Football (@UTSAFTBL) October 10, 2021
De'Corian Clark with his school-record third TD grab of the game.
He's got seven grabs for 160 yards.
A four-play, 75-yard drive.
UTSA 52, WKU 43 - 4th (6:39). #BirdsUp pic.twitter.com/m4kF20hSm9
It was an absolutely dominant game for Clark. He had previously impressed last week against UNLV but against WKU he exploded. Although wide receiver Zakhari Franklin played he was limited by a knee injury and Clark stepped up to fill the void. He ended his career night with 7 receptions for 160 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Down by nine, Western Kentucky needed two scores to win the game. It felt within reach given how Zappe and the offense had played all game. And indeed, WKU marched downfield but had to settle for a 27-yard field goal to cut the lead to six. The defense needed to stop the Roadrunners from scoring, which had seemed impossible all game.
Even so, the Hilltoppers managed to force the punt and Zappe was given 3 minutes and 20 seconds to win the game. He managed to march WKU’s offense downfield and got the Hilltoppers to the UTSA 5-yard line before a chop block penalty moved WKU back 15 yards. Zappe had four opportunities to score and take the game for WKU. But UTSA’s “bend-don’t-break” defense tightened up and forced WKU into a 3rd-and-15. And when Zappe looked for Sterns in the endzone, UTSA’s defense finally got its first turnover of the game when Hicks intercepted the ball at the UTSA 2-yard line with 43 second left to seal the win.
Final: UTSA 52, Western Kentucky 46
When I previewed this game, I wrote that UTSA should not expect to keep up with Zappe through the air and should look to win by dominating the time of possession and run game. Harris proved me wrong. He did not have the yards Zappe had, but he kept pace all game, scored more times, and did everything else to win the game. Western Kentucky has been allowing career-games by opposing offenses all season, but I did not expect that it would be Harris who would have the career-game. Credit Traylor for having his team prepared to the gauntlet that was Western Kentucky’s passing offense.
UTSA is now off to its best start in program history at 6-0. Conference play can be tricky and there are always surprises but it is certainly possible UTSA runs the table and remains unbeaten all season. The remaining matchups that on paper could cause UTSA trouble is a road game against La Tech and a home game against UAB. It is simply astounding that Traylor all of this in just his second year.
Western Kentucky is now 1-4 and it’s a frustrating record with how the offense has played. Nevertheless, WKU has the potential to make waves in conference play on offense alone so long as the defense can marginally improve. The defense has been the glaring whole in an otherwise impressive team, so if WKU wants to get better it will have to be the defense, not the offense, that makes changes. Hopefully they can, as Western Kentucky faces Old Dominion next week—a team that is 1-5 on the season.
Despite the records, there is some possibility that UTSA and WKU meet up in the conference championship. If that happens, then C-USA should have a thriller rematch for the conference title. Fans might just hope it happens if the teams play like this again. That level of excitement will certainly help the stock of C-USA nationally.
Up next: UTSA faces Rice at home on Saturday, October 16 @ 6 PM (ET). WKU faces Old Dominion on the road on Saturday, October 16 @ 3:30 PM (ET).