Take a step back in time to the year 2016 and recall where the UTSA Roadrunners and UAB Blazers were as football programs. UTSA just came off a disappointing 3-9 season and hired their second-ever football coach in Frank Wilson to correct the program’s trajectory. UAB had not fielded a team since 2014 after the program was shockingly terminated by the University of Alabama school system. Both teams were afterthoughts in C-USA.
Now flash forward five years. The two programs are no longer afterthoughts, but contenders for C-USA titles. Since 2017, when UAB resumed football, the Blazers have won the C-USA West title every year and captured two C-USA championships. UTSA moved on from Wilson and hired Jeff Traylor, who has led the Roadrunners to national prominence with an undefeated season. Both teams are moving into a new conference—the AAC—and both teams now expect to compete every year for conference titles.
The turnaround for these programs since 2016 has been nothing short of extraordinary and last night they treated everyone to an extraordinary game.
The game was billed as the decider for the C-USA west crown and the two teams played accordingly, with both teams leaving everything they could on the field. They combined for nearly 900 yards of total offense, matched each other blow-for-blow the entire game, committed only one turnover all game, and led game-winning scoring drives in the fourth quarter. It was, to put it plainly, the best C-USA game played by the best C-USA west teams.
Here are five takeaways from the game.
The Blazers played a near-flawless first half...
UTSA had the homefield advantage, a loud and raucous home crowd of 35,000+ fans, a national ranking (#15 AP Poll, #22 CFP Poll), and all momentum on its side for an undefeated season. The Roadrunners were looking to capture their first C-USA west title in program history and wanting to play a more complete game after a listless showing against Southern Miss the previous week.
It didn’t matter for UAB. The Blazers came out on fire to start the game, scoring on the second second play of scrimmage when Dylan Hopkins connected with Trea Shropshire for a 74-yard touchdown. It was reminiscent of UTSA’s showing against UTEP two weeks ago when Sincere McCormick broke off a 75-yard touchdown run on the second play from scrimmage. And it set the tone for UAB early.
In fact, the first half was eerily reminiscent for UTSA fans who watched the UTEP game two weeks ago. In that game, the Roadrunners scored on every offensive possession, doing whatever they wanted on offense no matter what UTEP’s defense threw at them. Except this time it was UAB’s offense that did the damage and UTSA’s defense that could do little to stop it.
The Blazers had one punt in the half. The remaining offensive possessions were three touchdowns and one field goal. Shropshire had another long touchdown reception for 40-yards, giving him a gaudy stat line: 2 receptions, 134 yards, 2 touchdowns. By the time the half ended, the Blazers had amassed 349 yards of total offense, averaged 7.9 yards per rush attempt, and had a 7-point lead against the 2nd-best defense in C-USA with no signs of slowing down.
But UTSA’s defense dominated the second half
Whatever was said at halftime to galvanize and inspire UTSA, it worked. The Roadrunners came out of the half and scored in three plays to equalize the game. Frank Harris found Zakhari Franklin wide open in the middle of the field for a 54-yard score and the Roadrunners looked to their defense to keep the momentum.
UTSA’s defense did just that. After giving up 24 points in the first half the defense would hold the Blazers to just 7 points for the rest of the game. They sacked Hopkins three times—twice by Clarence Hicks on one offensive series—forced a fumble (but did not recover), and Jamal Ligon intercepted Hopkins at midfield. The defense gave up 125 yards, or just over a third of what they gave up the first half.
But crucially, the Roadrunners’ defense stopped UAB by mere inches with 1:37 remaining in the game. Had UAB converted that play the Blazers would have claimed victory but instead UAB would punt and give UTSA’s offense one last chance to win the game.
Penalties and big plays defined the game
The Blazers came into this game as one of the most penalized teams in FBS. They committed an absurd 13 penalties for 124 yards against UTSA, including two pass interference calls that set up two UTSA touchdown drives. The penalties arguably cost UAB the game, as they either gave UTSA’s offense life or killed UAB’s offensive drives.
UTSA committed only six penalties for 35 yards but a few came at very inopportune moments. The most egregious came at the start of the fourth quarter when UTSA lined up to receive a punt but kept two players on the field wearing No. 13 on the jersey. The penalty— “failure to wear required equipment”—kept UAB’s drive alive and although UAB did not score it gave the Blazer’s excellent field position on their next offensive series, which they used to score a touchdown to retake the lead.
Meanwhile the game had some impressive offensive plays from both teams. There were the two aforementioned touchdown passes to Shropshire for 74 and 40 yards, a one-handed touchdown catch by Franklin and Franklin’s 54-yard touchdown reception, a 16—yard touchdown run by UAB running back DeWayne McBride, a nearly complete sideline tiptoe catch by Franklin (video review would leave fans split on whether it was a catch or not), a 33-yard sideline tiptoe catch by UTSA wide receiver De’Corian Clark to set up UTSA’s game-winning touchdown, and UTSA tight end Oscar Cardenas’s touchdown catch that was tipped in the end zone.
There were no shortages of top-10 plays for fans to relive or for ESPN to replay.
UTSA’s final drive was a historic program-defining moment
UAB’s defense stopped UTSA on fourth down at the UAB 33 with 1:52 remaining in the game. It seemed to be UTSA’s last and best chance to win. The Roadrunners instead had to exhaust their remaining two timeouts and hope to stop UAB’s offense from gaining a first down. They did so, holding the Blazers to fourth-and-inches, but had to drive 77 yards with 1:06 remaining and no timeouts.
And here is where the offense staked a claim to one of the most memorable drives in UTSA’s history. The first play was an incomplete pass. But Harris’s next four plays were: a 28-yard pass to Cardenas, a 6-yard pass to Clark that Clark was able to take out of bounds to stop the clock, a 33-yard pass to Clark that set UTSA at UAB’s 10-yard line, and then a quarterback run that Harris took for 9-yards and nearly scored to set up UTSA at the 1 yard line. An incomplete pass set up third-and-goal from with 7 seconds remaining.
What happened next will go down in the annuls of UTSA history. The ball was hiked low causing Harris to fumble the snap. He recovered quickly and threw a pass over the top of UAB’s defensive line. UAB linebacker Noah Wilder tipped the pass, and Cardenas held firm to complete the catch in the end zone and secure UTSA’s victory.
Sometimes the ball just falls into the right place at the right time. This was one of those moments for UTSA and it gave the Roadrunners a signature win in a season littered with signature wins.
UAB and UTSA will be great additions to the AAC
When Texas and Oklahoma announced their move to the SEC it caused a domino effect downstream in college football. The Big 12 now needed teams and they raided the AAC to get them, taking Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF—the premier teams of the conference. The AAC, likewise, raided C-USA taking North Texas, Rice, Charlotte, FAU...and UTSA and UAB.
If this game is indicative of anything, its that the AAC will not miss too much of a step in competition with the addition of UTSA and UAB. This game was not a fluke. Both programs are highly successful and competitive, and both programs should remain just as competitive for foreseeable future.
This type of game creates long-lasting rivalries. The AAC looks to be getting a new one that is both exhilarating and fun. At the very least the conference is getting two programs clearly on the upswing and should endeavor to schedule the two to play each other at the end of the season to maximize the draw and the stakes.
UTSA may have won this time but it is hard to believe it is the last time these two programs will face each other in consequential games. Fans of C-USA and the AAC should expect to see similar games played in the future.
Up next: 11/27
UTSA has clinched C-USA West and will play North Texas at 1:00 PM (CT) on the road to close the season.
UAB closes out its season at home against UTEP at 1:00 PM (CT). Both UTEP and UAB are 7-4 and playing for a good bowl invite.