For the third consecutive time, the UTSA Roadrunners (4-2) and WKU Hilltoppers (3-3) played a game that was just too close to call until the final seconds.
Both teams came out swinging and left their best play on the field. “It reminded me of an NFL football game, how clean it was, the back and forth...it was a fun game,” said head coach Jeff Traylor. Indeed, the game was close in both the score and the statistics.
The Roadrunners ultimately prevailed in this C-USA championship rematch and are where they need to be to possibly repeat as champions. WKU falls to 1-1 in conference but still has a clear path back to the conference championship. We will see how the season goes, but there is a good shot that we again see these teams battle for the C-USA title. If so, it should be a good send off for this series. And even if it doesn’t, thankfully C-USA had such a thrilling series to show its fans.
UTSA and WKU came into this matchup with prolific and explosive offenses. Even so, the first half was relatively quiet, as the defenses stepped up to take away the big plays and the offenses struggled to move the ball, resulting in a 17-14 score at halftime.
Each team scored on their opening possession, with both quarterbacks running in the touchdown scores.
But surprisingly for the Roadrunners, UTSA’s first possession was primarily run focused. Quarterback Frank Harris threw only two passes but notched most of his yardage, including the 12-yard score, with his feet and running back Brendan Brady took care of the rest. Makai Hart, who missed the last four games due to injury, returned on the offensive line and it was clear that the running game immediately benefitted.
“We just took what the defense gave us,” said Harris.
The Hilltoppers were equally strong, albeit in the passing game. Quarterback Austin Reed found receivers easily, and UTSA’s lackluster tackling frequently gave the Hilltoppers more yards after the catch. wWide receiver Malachi Corley took a simple screen pass 38 yards and into the red zone after evading at least four tacklers on the way. Reed then ran in a two-yard touchdown to the tie the game and continued to push the offense downfield.
But after that, the defenses locked up and took away the big plays. Neither team scored again in the first quarter as both the Roadrunners and Hilltoppers repeatedly stalled midfield.
WKU was particularly good at tackling. Senior safety Kaleb Oliver stopped UTSA’s playmakers immediately where he made contact and twice prevented a massive gain when he was the last line of defense. The rest of WKU’s passing defense were able to contain UTSA’s wide receivers or stop Harris from breaking off a long run.
The difference, however, came down to the rushing game and penalties. The Roadrunners ran the ball (134 yards) just as effectively as they passed the ball (135 yards) and only committed four penalties. It allowed them to control the time of possession and keep WKU’s offense off the field.
The Hilltoppers, meanwhile, were able to pass the ball well (169 yards) but could only gain 48 yards rushing. And while WKU committed only three penalties, two were personal fouls that gifted UTSA 30 yards and extended their drives. And on UTSA’s last drive, the Hilltoppers lucked out on a potential third personal foul, that ended up being a no call, that could have given UTSA a chance for another touchdown before the half ended.
Instead, UTSA would kick a field goal at the end to lead 17-14 going into half. The close score mirrored the close stats at the half as well. UTSA outpaced WKU 269 yards to 217 yards and neither team committed any turnovers nor forced any sacks. Both Harris and Reed frequently evaded pressure when the pocket collapsed and rarely made a negative play.
UTSA would add to their lead early in the third quarter with a rushing touchdown—an eight-yard run/end zone fumble from sophomore Chris Carpenter that was recovered by wide receiver Joshua Cephus—but were unable to pull away from WKU despite the two-score advantage.
WKU also had issues capitalizing on scoring opportunities. The Hilltoppers started their next possession in UTSA territory, but an offensive pass interference penalty killed the drive and WKU could not convert on fourth down. It was the first of four fourth down tries that WKU would attempt in the second half; the Hilltoppers would only convert one. UTSA’s defense would give up nearly 500 yards of offense but were able to make stops when they needed to. Conversely, WKU also gave up nearly 500 yards of offense, but the Roadrunners were able to convert two of their three fourth down attempts.
Said safety Rashad Wisdom about UTSA’s defense after the game: “We tried to be more aggressive with them...I’m glad we were able to make [the big plays], that goes to show why the outcome was the way it was.”
Still, the Hilltoppers didn’t let the game get out of control. Reed stepped up and added 204 yards in the second half, totaling 373 yards in the game, and found wide receiver Michael Mathison for an 18-yard touchdown. When UTSA immediately responded with another touchdown Reed and the WKU offense drove downfield again and running back Kye Robinson broke off a clean 33-yard rush up the middle to bring the Hilltoppers within three once more.
But after recovering a UTSA fumble, WKU could not truly shift momentum to their side. The Hilltoppers would fail to convert on fourth down again, giving the Roadrunners the chance to seal the game which they would do when UTSA converted their own fourth down and were able to run out the clock.
“We still finished the game with the ball in our hands,” said Traylor. “You win games by playing good defense and running the ball, and that’s what we did tonight. . . . I thought the game was a great example of the triangle [of toughness].”
In the end, UTSA did just enough to win while WKU was just shy of stealing the victory. The stats further reveal that fact.
- In total offense, UTSA gained 486 yards, WKU gained 481 yards.
- In time of possession, UTSA had 30:02 while WKU had 29:58.
- In penalties, UTSA had six for 57 yards, WKU had seven for 53 yards.
- In red zone trips, UTSA was 4/5 while WKU was 3/3.
- On thrrd down conversions UTSA was 6/14 while WKU was 6/13. The difference, ultimately, was the 4th down attempts. WKU could only convert 1/4 while UTSA converted 2/3.
UTSA and WKU both suffered hard injuries as UTSA’s Zach Causey and WKU’s Mark Goode had to be carted off the field in the second half. UTSA also lost Makai Hart to injury after the senior returned from a four-game absence. It looks like redshirt sophomore Frankie Martinez will again be tasked with filling in on the offensive line.
WKU held UTSA’s trio of receivers in check relatively well. None of the three receivers had a 100-yard game, although Zakhari Franklin came close with 95 yards on six receptions. Clark only notched 62 yards on caught receptions, but he caught the lone touchdown in the corner of the end zone, exactly where he has found success all season.
Meanwhile, WKU’s wide receivers found a lot of success through the air. Senior Daewood Davis caught every one of his eight targets, with 120 yards and a touchdown while sophomore Malachi Corley had 131 yards on 11 receptions.
UTSA travels to Miami, FL to face FIU, Friday, 10/14 @ 8:00 PM ET
WKU travels to Murfreesboro, TN to face MTSU, Saturday, 10/15 @ 3:30 PM ET
It is more than a shame that these two won’t be conference mates in 2023 as UTSA heads to the AAC.