Date: Saturday, October 22, 2022
Time: 2:30 PM (CT)
Location: Alamodome — San Antonio, Texas
Radio: Ticket 760 AM (UTSA); KHYI 93.5/KXXN 97.5 (UNT)
Betting Line: -10 UTSA; O/U 72.5*
UTSA (5-2, 3-0 C-USA) Last game: Win over FIU 30-10
UNT (4-3, 3-0 C-USA) Last game: Win over La Tech 47-27
UNT leads series 5-4. Last meeting: UNT beat No. 15 UTSA 45-23
*Odds/lines subject to change. T&C’s apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details
Conference USA is in the midst of a transition. Six teams are leaving for the American Athletic Conference in 2023 and C-USA will replace them with five new programs from both the FBS and FCS ranks. The teams leaving will take with them the bulk of C-USA’s recent football success, future potential, and, of course, some rivalries born during that time.
On Saturday one of those rivalries, perhaps even the most intense, will be on full display one last time for C-USA fans before it heads to the AAC. The Roadrunners and Mean Green are no strangers to each other, and each team’s fanbases are certainly fired up for this year’s matchup. This will be the tenth time these two programs will meet on the gridiron and although it is only a decade old, this rivalry was built organically from the previous nine matchups.
UTSA knocked UNT out of the championship race in the Mean Green’s own stadium in 2013. UNT came back in the final seconds in 2017 to steal a victory and set the Roadrunners on a downward spiral. Then UTSA set program records against UNT in 2020. And last year, the Mean Green handily beat a ranked Roadrunners squad for UTSA’s only loss of the regular season.
In short, this matchup is a modern-day Texas rivalry forged through competition. The stakes are usually higher, and this year is no exception. The Roadrunners and Mean Green sit atop the conference standings, and both are undefeated in conference play. Whoever prevails will likely be the odds-on favorite to win the division and will have a clearer path to the championship.
Jeff Traylor has UTSA exactly where they need to be to repeat as conference champions. The Roadrunners are on a three-game winning streak since finishing a brutal out-of-conference schedule, winning a repeat championship matchup against WKU and taking care of business on the road against a rebuilding FIU program. Traylor continues to validate UTSA’s investment in his leadership as the Roadrunners look poised to return to the C-USA title game.
To do so, however, will be no easy task.
Injuries have decimated UTSA’s offensive line and limited some of the explosive playmaking capabilities from last year. Traylor has had to move guys around, which has taken away UTSA’s deep passing threat. The notable loss is all-conference guard Makai Hart. He is likely done for the season, leaving redshirt sophomore Frankie Martinez to take the majority of snaps at right tackle.
But the Roadrunners’ depth has been the difference. Walker Baty, another redshirt sophomore, converted from defense to left tackle and took the starting reps last week against FIU. Baty played exceptionally well given what was asked of him and looks to be a relatively permanent addition to the offensive line.
Additionally, freshman Kevorian Barnes stepped up as the lead running back in place of starters Brendan Brady and Trelon Smith while sophomore Dan Dishman got meaningful reps at tight end. Barnes had 20 carries for 128 yards and 2 touchdowns (all career bests) and 0 turnovers against FIU; Dishman had 2 catches for 49 yards and 1 touchdown. Barnes even broke off UTSA’s largest running play of the season, but it was called back on a penalty. Going forward, Traylor will probably rely on Barnes and Dishman more, which should help keep UTSA’s offense running in spite of the injuries.
Quarterback Frank Harris continues to be the heart of the offense. Despite scoring only 2 touchdowns and giving up 1 fumble, he still amassed a quiet 303 yards against FIU and distributed the ball well amongst UTSA’s trio of wide receivers. Zakhari Franklin, De’Corian “JT” Clark, and Joshus Cephus all had catches over 15 yards, had at least 5 receptions, and amassed more than 50 yards. FIU focused on taking away the long passing play all game, but it did not stop Harris from picking apart the defense through the air.
The Roadrunners also saw younger players step up on defense. Freshman Trey Moore had 2.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss against FIU while sophomore Nick Booker-Brown had 1 sack and 2.5 tackles for a loss. As a team the defense had 4 sacks, 14 tackles for a loss, and 1 interception, and they held FIU out of the endzone until the final drive of the game. UTSA continues to give up yards but just as last year seems to tighten up when it is necessary to prevent the scoring play.
Usually, the Roadrunners are better at defending against the run than they are against the pass. They give up an average of 169 yards on the ground and 261 yards through the air. But last year, the Roadrunners allowed UNT to score all 6 touchdowns by running the ball and allowed the Mean Green to accumulate 351 yards in the process. UTSA cannot allow a repeat performance, or UNT will almost certainly come away victorious.
Finally, UTSA needs to be careful with turnovers. They had 2 fumbles against FIU last week and have given up the ball 6 times in 3 conference games. The Roadrunners had 6 fumbles and lost 3 of them last year against North Texas, which contributed heavily to the loss. Protecting the ball should be paramount against UNT if the Roadrunners wish to avoid a repeat performance.
North Texas Mean Green
At this point last year, UNT looked like a team without an identity and were 1-6. Then the Mean Green went on a five-game win streak, including an upset over then-No. 15 UTSA, to end the season and become bowl eligible.
Despite losing key players and depth this offseason, that momentum does not appear to have slowed down. The Mean Green have dominated the C-USA opponents they have faced so far, winning by over 16 points in each league contest, and look capable of beating anyone left on their schedule.
It starts with the running game. UNT gained an absurd 475 yards on the ground against La Tech last week—good for an average of 10.1 yards per attempt—and amassed 300 yards against FAU the week before. And they are getting it done with young talent. Sophomores Ayo Adeyi and Oscar Adaway have already eclipsed the 500-yard mark and behind them sophomores Ikaika Ragsdale and Isaiah Johnson have been efficient when given the opportunities. Basically, the Mean Green have a variety of talent to choose from to run the ball all over their opponents.
However, they are also vulnerable if the running attack falters. The team averages 251.3 yards per game but are 1-3 when held below that average, with the lone win coming against UTEP in the first week of the season. When running the ball does not work UNT has been unable to make up the loss of production in the passing game.
That does not mean UNT cannot pass the ball well. Quarterback Austin Aune threw for 196 yards and 2 touchdowns last week and has already surpassed 1,500 yards on the season. In fact, the Mean Green average 1 yard more passing than they do rushing—252.6 yards per game—but the two games that they threw for over 300 yards were loses. In short, when forced to pass the ball UNT is limited in scoring and are more efficient and explosive when the run game is the primary focus.
Part of the reason UNT needs a strong running game is to assist the defense. In UNT’s three loses their opponents scored 44 or more points, whereas in UNT’s four wins their opponents have all been held to under 30 points. A strong running performance has both allowed the Mean Green to keep up on scoring and also keep opposing offenses off the field and limit scoring opportunities.
This will be particularly important to stave off UTSA’s explosive offense. While sophomore Ridge Texada has been successful defending the pass—he has 2 interceptions and 1 pick-six already—the Mean Green do not have the personnel to contain all three of UTSA’s wide receivers. To contain any one of them will be difficult for an entire game, so UNT will be better served defensively keeping Harris and the Roadrunners’ offense off the field, and that starts with establishing a strong and consistent running game.
But ultimately, any talent deficiency UNT has in the secondary or generally on defense might just be irrelevant. The Mean Green were in a similar situation last year and they soundly defeated UTSA. That included locking down UTSA’s passing attack and keeping Franklin, Clark, and Cephus contained. This is a rivalry game, and talent gaps or stats are often immaterial in these matchups. Expect the Mean Green to come out swinging on defense regardless of what the Roadrunners throw at them.
It’s tough to predict rivalry games and in my season preview I still threw this game as a toss-up simply on the fact that both teams have defied expectations in previous matchups. Both UTSA and UNT should know that this game will likely determine the division leader and I expect that both teams will play accordingly. Last year UNT started hot, and UTSA never recovered. The question, then, is whether UTSA can respond or prevent UNT from dictating the pace of the game should the Mean Green start hot again. That will require containing UNT’s rushing offense, which has been a strength of UTSA’s defense this season. And two other considerations exist. I anticipate that UTSA will (1) be motivated to prevent a repeat performance of last year’s game, and (2) have a loud crowd at home that will cost UNT a few mistakes. If so, then UTSA should be able to win this matchup on the strength of Harris’s arm and the Roadrunners’ elite receiving talent.
UTSA 41 UNT 33