It was the rematch C-USA fans wanted and the football world needed.
Fans of college football will recall that 2021 has not been kind to Conference USA. A new realignment that started with the departure of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC has trickled slowly down to the G5 conferences and C-USA felt the brunt of that change. Six teams will exit C-USA in the coming years and head off to greener pastures while the conference attempts to stay relevant with new FCS additions.
One of the teams leaving is the UTSA Roadrunners. The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, meanwhile, will stay put. These two teams will likely face each other only 2-3 more times before the move is finalized.
It’s a shame, and if tonight becomes the last night these two teams play then college football will have lost an amazingly entertaining rivalry. But at least for tonight football fans were treated to a memorable and thrilling rematch of two elite teams that laid their entire season down on the gridiron.
This game was exactly what C-USA needed. The game had over 1000 yards of offense, multiple fourth down conversions, strong defensive plays, and an outcome that wasn’t decided until the final offensive play.
In the end, UTSA prevailed 49-41 over Western Kentucky and captured their first-ever football championship and CUSA title. The win caps off a historic season for the Roadrunners, who finish their season 12-1 before the bowl game. And although the Hilltoppers ultimately fell short, Western Kentucky move to 8-5 in what has undoubtedly been a magnificent year offensively.
Here was how the game went:
The first half belonged to UTSA
Western Kentucky boasted arguably the most explosive and dangerous offense in the country behind quarterback Bailey Zappe and wide receiver Jerreth Sterns. The Hilltoppers came into this matchup scoring 40+ points for the past five games, and Western Kentucky started off exactly as expected—with a 60-yard touchdown pass before a minute had even run off the game clock. It would be, shockingly, the only touchdown Western Kentucky would score in the first half.
UTSA would respond and then would take off running. Literally. Quarterback Frank Harris ran into the end zone from 24-yards to even the score at 7-7. The next three possessions saw UTSA score a 2-yard rushing touchdown, a 6-yard rushing touchdown, and a 65-yard rushing touchdown. Sincere McCormick accounted for two of those scores, including the 65-yard rush, and Brendan Brady accounted for the other. By the time the half ended, UTSA had amassed 223 total yards rushing and punted the ball once.
Meanwhile, Western Kentucky’s offense stalled. Zappe was able to do whatever he wanted through the air but the Hilltoppers could not capitalize with points. Instead of touchdowns, the team settled for two field goals while missing two field goals and amassing -14 yards rushing. The Hilltoppers constantly found themselves in 3rd-and-long plays, often as a result of dropped passes.
The half ended with UTSA sporting a 28-13 lead. The Roadrunners seemed to have all momentum on their side.
Western Kentucky stormed back in the second half
All season UTSA’s defense played with a strong “bend-don’t-break” attitude, often giving up a lot of yards but not many points. But for the past three weeks it looked like that identity had faltered and many experts who previewed this game predicted the defense would again be a liability.
UTSA proved them wrong. Western Kentucky committed two turnovers on their first two possessions to start the second half—a muffed punt and an interception. It led to 14 points for the Roadrunners and soon Western Kentucky found themselves in a 42-13 hole. The Roadrunners defense played hard and it rewarded them accordingly.
But it turns out that lead was needed. Because for the rest of the half Zappe and the Hilltopper offense seemed to do anything they wanted. The Hilltoppers scored a touchdown of every single offensive possession they had after Zappe’s interception (the last drive notwithstanding), mostly through the air. First, Zappe converted a fourth down into a 12-yard touchdown pass to Mitchell Tinsley. He then found Sterns for a 13-yard score and a 34-yard score, and running back Kye Robichaux scored on a one-yard run.
UTSA, on the other hand, began to falter offensively. The Roadrunners marched downfield but couldn’t earn any points on their drives. Western Kentucky’s defense bottled up McCormick and forced UTSA into countless third-and-long moments—a reversal of the position Western Kentucky faced during the first half. And the Roadrunners began to make mistakes. Safety Rashad Wisdom, a leader on defense, was flagged for targeting and ejected from the game. UTSA also failed to convert on fourth down, coming just a hair-length shy of the marker, and kicker Hunter Duplessis missed a 46-yard field goal try.
When the Hilltoppers took their first offensive possession in the fourth quarter all momentum seemed to have shifted in their favor. UTSA still boasted a two-possession lead but had been unable to add to their lead while Western Kentucky quickly chipped away. Then Robichaux scored on his one-yard run and suddenly the blowout became a repeat of these teams’ earlier matchup when the game was decided in the final seconds.
The fourth quarter thrills
But the Roadrunners found a way to stave off a collapse, just as they had done time-after-time this season. UTSA methodically marched downfield, going 75 yards in 10 plays, converting a 4th down at midfield, and scoring on a 28-yard pass to De’Corian Clark. Critically, the drive took nearly five minutes off the clock leaving Zappe and Western Kentucky’s offense with just 6:18 left to equalize.
The Hilltoppers would score on their next possession (the 34-yard pass to Sterns), converting another 4th down on the drive, and converted a two-point play to bring the score back to one possession.
With 4:00 minutes remaining the Roadrunners needed to either score points—even a field goal—or convert enough first downs to drain the clock and prevent Zappe from having a final drive. UTSA succeeded on the latter. The offense converted first downs and began driving, but penalties on back-to-back plays stalled the drive and forced the Roadrunners to punt.
Zappe now had 1:05 remaining to tie the game and take revenge for failing to score in the final seconds when these teams last met. It was not enough. With one second remaining, Zappe heaved a final pass towards the end zone and was intercepted by Jahmal Sam as time expired. Just as had happened previously the final play was an interception near the end zone to seal the victory for UTSA.
What more could be asked for in a conference championship? The Roadrunners captured their first title in front of a home crowd of 41,000+ fans, who were loud, passionate, and energetic all game long. The Hilltoppers found themselves in a massive 20+ point hole and still managed to claw their way out because Zappe and his wide receivers are simply transcendent. This was a highly-anticipated rematch that did not disappoint.
The stats bear out how close this matchup was despite the lopsided scoring. Western Kentucky had 568 total yards; UTSA had 556 total yards. Western Kentucky had 26 1st downs; UTSA had 28 first downs. Western Kentucky converted all three 4th down attempts; UTSA converted two of three 4th down attempts. And both teams dominated in one offensive category at the expense of the other team: Western Kentucky had 577 passing yards to UTSA’s 252 yards, while UTSA had 304 yards rushing to Western Kentucky’s -9 yards.
The key difference, however, were the turnovers. Western Kentucky had three turnovers, two that were consequential, while UTSA had none. Considering the final score was a single possession those turnovers made all the difference.
But ultimately UTSA won by doing what it has ordinarily done best. The Roadrunners ran the ball effectively and often, controlled the clock, and limited points on defense even when giving up yards. It worked against Illinois at the start of the year and it worked against Western Kentucky to end the year.
Congratulations to UTSA, the 2021 CUSA Champions!