The Roadrunners started running in Week 4, and they can’t be stopped. This time, not even an Owl could catch them.
UTSA traveled down I-10 to battle Rice in their last matchup as C-USA rivals before both programs join the American Athletic Conference in July. And when the Roadrunners exited Rice Stadium, they left zero doubt of their status as the C-USA frontrunner in a 41-7 domination to signify their eighth consecutive win. After downing the Owls in lopsided fashion, UTSA is set to host the conference championship game at the Alamodome for the second straight year.
“We work hard at it, we believe in ourselves, and you better enjoy this kind of stuff,” UTSA head coach Jeff Traylor said. “And when you got Frank Harris at quarterback, you always have a chance.”
The rainy conditions in Houston didn’t slow down the explosive Roadrunner offense. Quarterback Frank Harris went straight to work in the middle of the first quarter with a 63-yard, sideline-tightroping touchdown run to put UTSA on the board. After getting into a groove, the star senior quarterback continued his rampage on the ground with a second rushing lengthy touchdown, this time stemming from 15 yards. Then to cap the opening quarter, Harris sent a screen to Zakhari Franklin for their 10th scoring connection of the season. By the time the field flipped to usher in the second quarter, Harris already had UTSA in a commanding 21-0 lead.
“Coaches called my number. The defense, whatever they did, I kind of improvised, and I ran,” Harris said on his first quarter success. “I try to take what the defense gives me. If they wanna make me run, I run the ball. If they wanna make me throw, I throw.”
Harris collected 108 rushing yards by halftime, and after a brief appearance in the third quarter, he earned an early rest. The San Antonio native finished with 103 passing yards and three touchdowns strikes on an 11-of-14 showing, in addition to 124 rushing yards for his hometown team.
“He’s getting to be literally the most unique player I’ve ever coached in my life and I’ve coached some fantastic ones,” Traylor said of his senior quarterback. “He’s different. I’m gonna do my greatest recruiting job ever to see if I can get him to do this again. But whatever he does, I’m gonna love him. He is extremely unique. And as great of a player he is, he is a better person, and we’re all blessed to be in his presence.”
Rice’s quarterback situation wasn’t as smooth. TJ McMahon started nine consecutive games, but he suffered an injury in the prior week. With the usual signal caller unavailable, the Owls trotted out Week 1 starter Wiley Green, who hadn’t seen action since battling an injury in the opener at USC. After a 4-of-5 start through the air, Green was strip-sacked on a safety blitz by Kelechi Nwachuku. But as UTSA recovered the ball to the Rice 15-yard line, Green remained lying on the field with an arm injury — the same one from the USC game.
“Knocking their quarterback out, I feel bad for Mike (Bloomgren),” Traylor said. “We got home on pressure. That was their original starter and they finally got him back, and then we knocked him out. We didn’t enjoy this. I’ve been through that, so I’m very empathetic for coaches. I feel bad for Mike and that staff because it’s just hard to operate when that guy goes down.”
Green was eventually assisted by several Owl staff members and relocated to the sideline but never returned. Shawqi Itraish filled in at quarterback and completed 9-of-19 passes for 89 yards and one interception before returning to the bench in the third quarter.
“Shawqi came in and did some good things in the first half,” Bloomgren said. “And then there were some things when we got into the low red that were very clearly there and we just had to do our job and execute. We talk time and time again about how difficult it is to play quarterback and how hard that job is, but that’s the assignment — that’s what you sign up for. When people are open you have to hit them. You have to take advantage of the opportunities that are there.”
Rice entered Saturday leading the country in turnovers and it maintained that undesirable label by coughing up the ball twice in the first half and once later in the third quarter. While UTSA returned the favor in the second quarter with a fumble and interception on consecutive drives, the Owls failed to capitalize. Rice maneuvered into scoring territory three times in the second quarter, but a failed fourth down conversion within five yards of the goal line and two missed field goals — Christian VanSickle’s first two misses of the year after a 10-for-10 start — sent the Owls into the half trailing 28-0.
“When things aren’t going well for your football team and you have a chance to have a spark — defense gets a turnover and then you’re driving and you get the ball down to the 4 or 5 yard line — you call a couple really good plays, you feel like there’s some things there but you don’t get it done,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “As good as anything draws up or as open as anyone is, none of that matters. We have to make sure we have all 11 executing. And that’s our job as coaches.”
When it came to the battle in the trenches, UTSA demonstrated more aggression on both sides. Potent run blocking allowed Brenden Brady to rush for 67 yards and Kevorian Barnes to add 64. Collectively, the Roadrunners posted 262 rushing yards on 8.2 per carry in comparison to Rice’s five rushing yards on an average of 0.2.
“I think we just keep on getting better,” Harris said on the recent surge in the run game. “Calling out our IDs up front in the o-line, the running backs hitting the hole and trusting the hole — we’re just gonna keep getting better for us. Kev and Brenden are great running backs for us — even J-Rod (Justin Rodriguez) got in — they’re just good dudes, know the offense, and I think (center Ahofitu) Maka and the o-line are doing a good job up front.”
Led by Nwachuku and inside linebacker Trevor Harmanson, UTSA invaded the backfield for two sacks and 10 tackles for loss while in contrast, the Owls chipped in zero sacks and a meager three tackles for loss. The Roadrunners’ dominant front prevented Rice from tallying a single rush exceeding five yards until under three minutes remaining in the third quarter and the Owls never topped 10 yards on a single rushing attempt.
“We’re finally putting everything together,” Nwachuku said. “We knew the potential we have as a unit, but every game was a couple plays here and there. Once we’ve been trying to clean those things up like that and play a truly clean game, you see what we’re capable of.”
The second half was primarily handled by backups for both squads alike. Rice inserted freshman quarterback AJ Padgett into the game for his first collegiate action, while UTSA allowed Eddie Lee Marburger to guide the offense in the final two quarters. With an abundance of bench players in action, the Roadrunners held the shutout until Padgett delivered a 43-yard deep ball to Brad Rozner in the end zone on the second play of the fourth quarter.
“There were some things for a true freshman to step in there, to step into some throws and take some shots — yeah, I thought he did some good things,” Bloomgren said of Padgett. “He was in scout team all week this week. He was throwing scout team balls other than a couple designed runs for him. With a week of work, he could have some opportunity. I have no idea what the future looks like for Wiley — how bad that arm will be. I have no idea what the future will be for TJ. So there’s a lot of possibilities that we gotta work through.”
Only college football’s three remaining undefeated teams hold longer win streaks than UTSA, and Traylor’s team looks to make it nine in a road trip to UTEP to conclude the regular season. Regardless of the result, the Roadrunners are officially in the C-USA Championship Game for the second consecutive year, and once again, the Roadrunners will benefit from homefield advantage in the Alamodome.
“It’s incredible,” Traylor said of the opportunity to play the conference title game in front of a home crowd. “How about today? I don’t ever keep up with stats, but it sounded like we had more fans than they did. They were incredible. Our band was up there. It was a fun environment and element of the game, and we were surprised that many came down in this weather. The weather was just so bad and they were out there celebrating with us after the game. That was a cool experience.”
After missing opportunities against WKU and UTSA, Rice only has one opportunity left at cracking bowl eligibility. The Owls haven’t qualified for the postseason since 2015 — one of the five longest streaks in the country — and they’ll need to upend North Texas on the road next Saturday in order to snap the streak.
“We’ve been in this place before where we got our butts kicked by UTSA and we responded the next week,” Bloomgren said, referencing Rice’s 45-0 loss to the Roadrunners in 2019. “And that’s gonna be our charge right now. As coaches, we’ve got to put them in positions to be successful next weekend to go to play a very good North Texas team at their home and find a way to get a win.”