Date: Saturday, September 24, 2021
Time: 3:30 PM (ET), 2:30 PM (CT)
Location: Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Memphis, TN
Radio: UTSA - Ticket 760 AM; Memphis - News Talk 98.9, The Roar of Memphis
Providers: (TV) Cable/Satellite, Hulu Live TV, Sling TV, YouTube TV, Fubo TV
UTSA (3-0), Conference USA. Last game: win over Middle Tennessee 27-13
Memphis (3-0), American Athletic Conference. Last game: win over Mississippi State 31-29
First meeting of the series (0-0)
We are four weeks into the 2021 college football season, or a quarter of the way through the regular season. After enduring last year’s shortened and extemporaneous schedule it is nice to finally be back on track with a relatively normal routine. Thankfully, the football world has rewarded us with a marquee matchup on Saturday between two undefeated G5 programs.
The UTSA Roadrunners travel to Tennessee for the first time in their history to take on the Memphis Tigers. Both teams come into this matchup garnering some national attention. UTSA upset Illinois for the program’s second ever P5 win and then won back-to-back home games behind strong defensive play. Memphis is fresh off a thrilling victory over SEC opponent Mississippi State and rides a 3-0 record behind an explosive offensive attack.
This underrated, compelling matchup could possibly be remembered as one of the more memorable cross-conference games for the 2021 season. But when the dust settles at the Liberty Bowl this Saturday, only one team will remain undefeated.
UTSA Roadrunners Outlook
It is hard to envision UTSA starting its 2021 season any better than it already has. UTSA opened their season with a convincing road win over Big Ten opponent Illinois in a game which the Roadrunners never trailed, shut out FCS opponent Lamar for the first shut-out in program history, and handily beat conference rival Middle Tennessee.
What is even more impressive is that UTSA has accomplished these moments without an explosive game from all-conference running back Sincere McCormick. McCormick is still providing solid support for the Roadrunner’s offense, amassing two 100+ yard games, but it has been the emergence of wide receiver Zakhari Franklin and the return of a dominant and suffocating defense that has paced UTSA’s success. Franklin has already accumulated 346 yards and 3 touchdowns on just 22 receptions. From top to bottom this is UTSA’s most talented and complete team, and it should make UTSA a competitive opponent in Memphis.
UTSA can pick up yards quickly. The Roadrunners have put up over 400 yards of offense in every game this season and balance their attack on the ground and through the air. Quarterback Frank Harris has a strong command over the offense, often looking to Franklin or wide receiver Joshua Cephus for the big plays. The critical question, however, will be whether UTSA can score points. Ordinarily, this is not an issue. But last week against Middle Tennessee UTSA left 20 points off the board, courtesy of two redzone interceptions, two missed field goals, and an array of penalties. Reducing turnovers is always key to a win, but for UTSA to win on Saturday the offense will also have to ensure it does not leave scoring opportunities unfulfilled.
UTSA’s defense epitomizes the “bend-don’t-break” mentality, and for seven of their last eight quarters, the Roadrunners have been absolutely dominant. UTSA shut out Lamar and nearly shut out Middle Tennessee, holding the Blue Raiders to just 76 total yards and zero points before a run in the fourth quarter. Last week’s win was especially impressive given Middle Tennessee’s offensive success earlier in its season. UTSA had five sacks, forced one fumble and one interception, and allowed only 8 yards rushing. And in one instance, UTSA’s defense saved a 14-point swing in Middle Tennessee’s favor when it denied the Blue Raiders any points just 4 yards out from its own endzone. Another strong defensive game will be needed if the Roadrunners want to walk out of Memphis with the win.
On offense, the players to watch on Saturday will be Harris, McCormick, Franklin, and Cephus, as well as running back Brendan Brady. The offense still runs through McCormick and he has yet to break out as he did in 2020. Brady is a strong compliment to McCormick and the two of them will lead UTSA’s rushing attack. As for the passing game, Harris has developed a strong connection with Franklin and will likely look to Franklin first. If Franklin is held in check, look to Cephus to be Harris’s second target.
On defense, the players to watch will be all-conference safety Rashad Wisdom, cornerback Tariq Woolen, linebackers Charles Wiley and Trevor Harmanson, and defensive end Trumane Bell. Woolen has the measurables of an NFL corner and is already receiving attention from NFL scouts. Wiley, Harmanson, and Bell live in the backfield and can get to the quarterback quickly. They were also responsible for the majority of UTSA’s sacks and the fumble recovery against Middle Tennessee. Expect to hear their names if UTSA’s defense holds Memphis at bay.
Memphis Tigers Outlook
Arguably no team in the AAC entered 2021 shadowed by a larger question mark than Memphis. The Tigers had to replace numerous contributors across the board and the remnants of Mike Norvell’s 2019 Cotton Bowl team were slowly fading.
But alas, the winningest AAC program of the College Football Playoff era sustained its success through all the chaos. Ryan Silverfield’s team is one of three remaining unbeatens in the conference, and the Tigers survived intense matchups against Arkansas State and Mississippi State to remain spotless in 2021. In Week 2, Memphis’ offense took center stage and delivered a signature performance in a 55-50 road victory at Arkansas State. But the win over the Bulldogs was a significant confidence-booster last week, as Memphis overcame a 10-point halftime deficit to topple an SEC foe, 31-29.
All-AAC wide receiver Calvin Austin III was crowned the hero of the biggest win of the Silverfield era. He scored the team’s first offensive touchdown in the third quarter and then fought his way to the end zone again in the fourth on a 25-yard reception to hand Memphis its first lead. Then, Austin manufactured the heads-up play of the entire college football season — although it went down in controversial fashion — he unsuspectingly scooped up a punt that Mississippi State thought it had downed and ran it back 94 yards the other away for an electric return.
Austin is undoubtedly the focal point of Memphis’ offense, and the former walk-on ranks third in the FBS in receiving yards and first in receiving touchdowns. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Austin attain All-American status this season, and he’s accomplishing this with an 18-year old quarterback. He’s established excellent chemistry with true freshman Seth Henigan, who is serving as one of college football’s best surprises in 2021. Henigan didn’t light Mississippi State on fire last week, but he piled on 417 passing yards and five touchdowns the week prior, demonstrating that the capability to lead the offense in shootout fashion is there. Through three starts, Henigan has played smart and taken care of the ball with eight touchdowns and just one interception.
But Henigan isn’t Memphis’ only exhilarating freshman surprise this season. After fielding a dormant rushing attack to end 2020, the Tigers rejuvenated the backfield by transitioning Brandon Thomas to the lead halfback role. Only Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker owns more rushing yards to his name than Thomas this year. Showings of 147, 191, and 83 yards rank the Arkansas native as the second leading rusher in the country, shining with a jaw-dropping average of 8.4 yards per carry. With Henigan, Thomas, and Austin creating a stat-stuffing big three, Memphis’ offense remains a force despite all the personnel turnover this offseason.
While the Tigers are lighting up opposing defenses with a top 20 scoring offense and top 20 yards per game offense, their defense is posting contrasting numbers. Louisiana Tech is the only program in the country to yield more passing yards per contest than the Tigers’ 400. Arkansas State attained 582 passing yards and five touchdowns on Memphis, while Mississippi State’s air raid added 417 and three touchdowns.
However, those teams threw 66 and 67 times on Memphis’ defense, respectively, so high passing output will certainly translate to a greater yardage output. The Tigers’ defense showed signs of progress in the second half last week, holding Mississippi State to four punts and a turnover on downs in its first five drives of the half. Now that the potential has been witnessed, it’s a matter of remaining consistent and not frequently giving up big plays through the air.
One Memphis cornerback has been tested a lot, but he’s countering opponents’ passes at a record rate. True freshman Gabe Rubin is the FBS leader in pass breakups with 10. To get an idea of how impressive that is through three games, three players tied for the national lead in 2019 with 16 apiece. Rubin is three games removed from his high school playing days, yet he’s less than a third away from cracking the top 70 all-time in the category.
Another name in the secondary to note is strong safety Sanchez Blake Jr., a vital cast member to the 2019 AAC champion team. Blake is one of four Tigers with 20 tackles on the season, and he scooped up a fumble for a 49-yard return in the first quarter against Mississippi State. The turnover was a welcome sight, especially considering the Tigers’ low takeaway count this season. Memphis has been the benefactor of just two turnovers in three games, which has left the defense on the field longer than desired.
The inability to pressure the quarterback has certainly contributed to the lack of takeaways, and the Tigers are still looking for a premier pass rusher after registering just four sacks through a quarter of their season.
Sumner: Memphis 38, UTSA 35. UTSA has both the offensive and defensive tools to beat Memphis. There is a reason the line is so close, and I would expect a close game on Saturday. I also picked against UTSA when they played Illinois and the Roadrunners set me straight on that decision. That said, I expect Memphis to take this game even if UTSA plays well. The Roadrunners will need both the offense and defense to play nearly mistake-free, something that was lacking against Middle Tennessee. Additionally, Memphis is better than Illinois and the Tigers can amass points quickly. I believe the home field advantage will be the difference and will give the Tigers the edge they need to squeak out the win.
Helwick: UTSA 37, Memphis 34. I’m going with the upset this week at the Liberty Bowl. The Roadrunners’ defense is shaping up well this season, and they’ve frustrated the rushing attacks of Illinois and Middle Tennessee with ease. Memphis’ offense stalled without a single point until the 6:20 mark in the third quarter last week and UTSA should present many of the same challenges to the Tigers that Mississippi State did. The Roadrunners appear to be favorites to win the turnover battle considering the havoc they cause on defense, while Memphis has yet to consistently force other offenses in uncomfortable situations. I predict the Tigers will overcome an early double-digit deficit in this one, but UTSA emerges on top with a signature win en route to a 4-0 record.