The UTSA Roadrunners have lofty expectations for 2021. After a respectable 7-5 season and returning nearly their entire roster, UTSA is primed to compete for the Conference USA championship. What better way to begin that campaign than with the biggest win in program history? UTSA did just that, opening their 2021 football season with an astounding win over Big 10 opponent Illinois.
UTSA was a four-point underdog heading into Illinois, but many media pundits had this game tabbed as a potential upset. Even so, hardly anyone, including me, could have predicted UTSA would lead the Illini for the entire game. But a balanced offensive attack and solid defense helped ensure that UTSA walked out of Champaign with the victory. Quarterback Frank Harris went 20/32 for 280 yards with 1 TD, 0 interceptions, running backs Sincere McCormick and Brendan Brady combined for 184 yards and 2 TDs, and wide receiver Zakhari Franklin had a career game in receiving yards. But even more impressively, UTSA minimized the mental mistakes that plagued previous teams and played well in all four quarters. The result was a convincing win for the program’s second-ever win over a P5 opponent that should leave fans giddy about the team’s future and prospects for the 2021 season.
The Roadrunners’ offense runs through McCormick, but UTSA found success early through the air with Franklin and Joshua Cepheus, getting to midfield before stalling after Harris was sacked. Illinois could do no better, but its special teams pinned UTSA deep on back-to-back drives. UTSA started its third drive on its own 6-yard line and proceeded to march the remaining 94 yards behind Franklin and Cepheus. The Roadrunners baited Illinois with a McCormick run and Harris ran into the endzone untouched to take the first lead of the night. UTSA would never relinquish it. Another 3-and-out for Illinois and the quarter ended: UTSA 7, Illinois 0.
The Roadrunners opened the second quarter right where they left off. After a 25-yard pass to Franklin, UTSA found the endzone again with a 7-yard TD run from Brady. UTSA 14, Illinois 0. It was an impressive start and exactly what UTSA needed if they were going to upset Illinois.
But Illinois would not go quietly, and the Illini responded with a TD drive of their own. Quarterback Artur Sitkowski connected with wide receiver Deuce Spann and busted coverage in UTSA’s secondary ensured that Spann would walk untouched into the endzone. UTSA responded with a 32-yard field goal to stretch the lead back to 10, but a strong running attack and more broken coverage in UTSA’s secondary gave Illinois its second TD in as many drives. UTSA 17, Illinois 14 with 2:46 remaining before the half.
It seemed Illinois was finally getting momentum and was poised to tie or take the lead going into halftime. The Illini forced a 3-and-out, but the first major mistake of the game came when UTSA punted back and Illinois muffed the punt to give UTSA the ball back with 1:40 remaining. Hunter Duplessis kicked a 28-yard field goal and UTSA took a 6-point lead over Illinois into the half. UTSA 20, Illinois 14.
Whatever adjustments Illinois made on offense was thankfully nullified by the defensive adjustments UTSA made. The third quarter started much the same way the second quarter ended, except it was UTSA committing the turnover. Illinois started the second half 3-and-out, but an unforced fumble from Harris gave the ball back to Illinois and the Illini capitalized with a field goal to cut the lead to 3. The two teams then traded the ball back and forth on consecutive 3-and-outs. UTSA finally scored on a 27-yard field goal and the quarter ended with UTSA retaining its lead. UTSA 23, Illinois 17.
Typically, when a G5 team plays a P5 team, and especially when the game is close, the 4th quarter is when the wheels fall off for the G5 team. Exhaustion sets in and the big plays start piling up. In prior years UTSA would probably succumb to this problem. Not this time. UTSA and Illinois both cranked up the offense and the teams traded hard blows for the entire quarter.
Illinois scored its second 50+ yard field goal to cut UTSA’s lead to 3 and the Roadrunners responded. A fantastic 43-yard bomb to wide receiver De’Corian Clark set up a 19-yard yard TD pass to Franklin. It was a perfect way to cap off Franklin’s night. He ended his night with 10 catches, 155 yards, and 1 TD. Franklin has received considerable hype and exposure for the season and against a quality P5 opponent he added to his reputation by breaking his career record in receiving yards. With the TD, UTSA took a 10-point lead against Illinois. UTSA 30, Illinois 20, with 12:37 remaining.
Illinois would score 7 on its next possession and stay within striking distance. Linebacker Clarence Hicks was called for targeting and ejected from the game. It cost the Roadrunners one of their better defensive players and the defense would have to adjust. UTSA 30, Illinois 27 with 9:56 remaining.
Up till now UTSA had been winning primarily through the air, with decent success running the ball. But UTSA is most dangerous with its running attack, and McCormick and Brady stepped up to drive UTSA’s offense straight through the Illinois defense. Nine of UTSA’s ten plays in the drive came on the ground, capped off with a 33-yard TD run from Brady. The Illini defense must have been exhausted from the one-two punch of McCormick and Brady because Brady ran clear through a gaping hole and made it untouched in the endzone. The drive not only gave UTSA another 10-point lead, but it chewed up a good chunk of time for Illinois to respond. UTSA 37, Illinois 27 with 4:57 remaining.
Illinois would march itself back down to the redzone but UTSA’s defense held strong and forced the 4th down. Illinois would elect to kick the field goal and cut its deficit to 7. With all three of its timeouts remaining Illinois just needed a stop and it would have a chance to tie or take the lead. The Illini would get their stop. In what felt like a throwback to the Wilson era, UTSA ran the ball straight up the middle three times and could not convert the 1st down. Illinois got the ball back with less than 2 minutes remaining.
At this point the Roadrunners must have felt a wave of conflicting emotions. They held a 7-point advantage and just needed to hold Illinois’s offense out of the endzone to seal the upset. There is no doubt the players were confident given how well they had played all game. But they were facing a determined Big Ten opponent, were on the road, and had been frequently exposed through the air, especially in the middle of the field. Illinois had the opportunity to deny UTSA its biggest road win since Houston in 2014. And Illinois would show it could do that just that. The Illini marched downfield after converting on a 3rd-and-long and made it to UTSA’s 15-yard line. Its as far as Illinois would go. Illinois committed offensive pass interference in the endzone and were backed up to a 3rd-and-25 with 9 seconds remaining. After an incomplete pass, Illinois had one last chance to tie the game. Sitkowski successfully connected with his receiver, but the catch was made out of bounds and the Roadrunners clinched the upset. UTSA 37, Illinois 30. Final.
UTSA won its first P5 win in 2017 against Baylor. It was also a road win that came down to the final possession. But Baylor was coming off a disappointing loss to FCS Liberty and first year head coach Matt Rhule was trying his best to regroup a program that was reeling from scandal with the Art Briles controversy. That Baylor team would go on to win just one game all season. And while UTSA technically had a winning record the Roadrunners would go 3-5 in conference play and miss out on a bowl game.
This win is different. It’s the type of win that quality G5 teams accomplish. Illinois is no pushover, having beaten rival Nebraska the week before. Head coach Bret Bielema has all of his players bought into the program. Suffice to say, UTSA would have been lucky to remain competitive in this game in years prior.
Man has that changed. This isn’t just a statement win, this is THE statement win and biggest win in program history. The Roadrunners didn’t just win, they won in quality fashion. This team is just built different than before. Jeff Traylor has transformed this program from the ground up and fans should be excited. There is no question that UTSA can compete for the Conference USA championship. But now it should be expected.
The Roadrunners begin their 2021 season 1-0. This writer is 0-1 on season predictions, but I’ll happily take that loss when this is the outcome.