Date: Saturday, October 8, 2022
Time: 6:00 PM (ET); 5:00 PM (CT)
Location: Alamodome — San Antonio, Texas
Radio: Ticket 760 AM (UTSA); SAM 100.7 FM/ESPN Radio 102.7 FM (WKU)
Betting Line: UTSA -6.5, O/U 73
UTSA (3-2), Conference USA. Last game: Win over Middle Tennessee 45-30
WKU (3-2), Conference USA. Last game: Loss to Troy 34-27
UTSA leads series 2-1. Last meeting: Conference USA Championship 2021, UTSA won 49-41
*Odds/lines subject to change. T&C’s apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details
It is a bit hard to understate the excitement this matchup engenders.
First, this is a rematch of last year’s conference championship and a rematch of two high-explosive offenses. UTSA and WKU met twice last year and both times fans were treated to an offensive spectacle where the game was not decided until the final play.
Second, neither team has really taken a step back and fans will almost surely see a repeat performance on Saturday. Both teams are 3-2 through five games, average over 35 points and 350 yards of passing offensive per game, and boast quarterbacks that have already thrown for over 1,500 yards. In fact, both UTSA and WKU are two of the top 12 teams in all of college football for total offense. While no outcome is a guarantee, it is hard not to believe this rematch will be anything but another shootout.
The question, then, is which team can better withstand the other’s passing attack and offense through four quarters. Last year it was UTSA. But the margin of error is narrow enough that WKU is more than capable of claiming the victory. And no matter who prevails this round, both teams have strong chances of making it back to the championship for a second rematch in as many years.
The UTSA offense starts and ends with quarterback Frank Harris. There is little left to say about him and his capabilities. Harris has already racked up three consecutive offensive player of the week awards and he continues, as he did last year, to dominate nearly every defense he plays against.
Harris’s stats speak for themselves. He leads the country in total offense—1,917 yards and 383 yards/per game—and rarely turns the ball over. Harris spreads the ball between three elite wide receivers—Zakhari Franklin, Joshua Cephus, and De’Corian “JT” Clark—and is able to scramble out of the pocket when he is pressured. And he has orchestrated numerous game-winning, or game-tying, drives in his career. So long as he remains UTSA’s quarterback the Roadrunners will rarely be out of a game.
Indeed, WKU is also no stranger to UTSA’s offensive power and Harris’s skills. In the two matchups last year Harris accounted for 567 passing yards, 139 rushing yards, and nine touchdowns while JT Clark caught 12 passes for 219 yards and four touchdowns. Clark has already eclipsed 550 yards this season, has scored six times, and has gained over 100 yards in each of his last two games.
Franklin and Cephus are not far behind; Franklin has 491 yards with 6 touchdowns and Cephus has 503 yards with two touchdowns. Each one is a threat to go off in any given game, making it nearly impossible to completely shut down UTSA’s offense.
But the Roadrunners continue to be vulnerable on defense, especially when playing WKU. The Hilltoppers have scored 40+ points every time they have faced UTSA and have twice eclipsed the 45-point mark. UTSA may own the 2-1 series advantage, but the wins have come from out-gunning WKU’s offense, not containing it.
That doesn’t appear to have changed this year. UTSA is giving up an average of 440 points per game and has been particularly vulnerable in passing defense. Army had a 15-year high passing game when they played the Roadrunners, and the team gets repeatedly exposed on the big plays. Nevertheless, UTSA has shown a proclivity, both this year and last year, for making the stop when it counts. And the defense has played strong competition—Houston, Texas, and Middle Tennessee—that partially skews the statistics. But against an explosive offense like WKU if the defense cannot find a way to make a stop, it will become that much more important for the offense to pick up the slack.
Ultimately, against WKU the offense is where UTSA needs its production. The largest change since last year has been the Roadrunners’ running offense. Without all-conference running back Sincere McCormick, UTSA has been relatively lackluster in gaining yards on the ground. They showed promise last week against Middle Tennessee and were able to close out the game by running the ball, but the Roadrunners will have to adjust against WKU to keep the Hilltoppers’ offense off the field. McCormick ran for an absurd 204 yards in last year’s championship game but since then, no running back has eclipsed 100 yards in a game.
Even so, running backs Brendan Brady and Trelon Smith have been consistent, and with the probable return of offensive lineman Makai Hart the Roadrunners could find some success running the ball. The Roadrunners won’t need a monster running game, but a competent one will go far in helping UTSA stave off the WKU offense.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Despite losing a premier quarterback in Bailey Zappe to the NFL, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers have not missed a beat offensively. Quarterback Austin Reed has stepped up in place of Zappe and has, in just five games, thrown for over 1600 yards and 17 touchdowns. That is good for fifth and fourth, respectively, in the country.
Reed also does well spreading the ball, with wide receiver Daewood Davis as his main target. Davis has notched 476 total yards and six touchdowns in five games with only 34 receptions, making him just as dynamic and explosive as any of UTSA’s trio of elite receivers. The remaining WKU receivers—spread out between Malachi Corley, Michael Mathison, and Jaylen Hall—have combined for 740 yards and seven touchdowns. Reed rarely makes mistakes, having thrown just four interceptions on the year. And while he is not as potent with his feet, Reed has been able to score twice and extend plays when protection breaks down.
Where WKU excels over UTSA is the running game. Sophomore running back Kye Robichaux averages 6.3 yards per attempt and has eclipsed the 300-yard mark with less than 50 carries. Conversely, UTSA’s best running back—Brendan Brady—has 304 yards but needed 79 caries to reach that number. Robichaux is capable of keeping WKU’s offense on the field, which will be key in stopping UTSA’s explosive passing offense.
The Hilltoppers’ defense has also strengthened since last year. WKU is giving up an average of 353 yards pers game—good for top 50 in the country—and has accounted for an impressive +6 turnover margin, and a total of 14 turnovers—top three in the country—in only five games.
However, it remains to be seen how the defense stacks up in conference play long term. The Hilltoppers shut out conference foe FIU and gave up only 17 points to Hawai’i. But against Troy and Indiana, WHU gave up 34 and 33 points, respectively. WKU will not stop Harris and UTSA’s offense from gaining points, but if they can force mistakes and win the turnover battle the Hilltoppers are more than capable of notching a win.
Moreover, WKU is likely itching to win in San Antonio and avenge their conference title loss. The Hilltoppers have not won in the Alamodome, albeit the one game was the conference championship. Both games last year came down to the final play, so WKU has shown itself to be more than capable of matching UTSA’s offensive firepower.
The question, however, is whether that offense can stay potent through all four quarters. Against FIU, another conference opponent, the answer was a resounding yes after the Hilltoppers scored 73 points. But while UTSA remains vulnerable on defense, the Roadrunners boast a more potent offense and defense than FIU. If Reed and Robichaux can keep pace with Harris, then WKU has a solid shot at stealing the win. It will require, however, a complete came. UTSA was able to overcome three turnovers against Middle Tennesse and still win by two scores. WKU cannot play lackluster if the Hilltoppers wish to leave Texas with the victory.
The margin of error for both teams is small. Compared to last year, it is more than probable that we see another offensive duel than a defensive one. The problem that WKU faces, however, is battling an elite passing offense that has already won a championship against the Hilltoppers. Harris and UTSA’s wide receiver trio look unstoppable, and it will be up to WKU to do what other teams have not accomplished. This game likely turns on UTSA’s mistakes which, while often, have only lost the Roadrunners one game this season. I expect both teams to come out strong, with the deciding moment coming in the fourth quarter.
UTSA 47, WKU 42