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2022 Week 1 Preview: Houston Cougars @ UTSA Roadrunners

A reigning AP Top 25 finisher and a reigning conference champion clash at the Alamodome in a highly-anticipated Lone Star State showdown.

UTSA v Houston Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Game notes

  • Time and Date: Saturday, September 3 at 3:30 p.m. ET
  • Network: CBS Sports Network
  • Location: Alamodome — San Antonio, TX
  • Spread: Houston (-4)
  • ESPN FPI: Houston has 62.4% chance to win
  • All-time series: Series tied, 1-1
  • Last meeting: UTSA 27, Houston 7 — August 29, 2014
  • Current streak: UTSA, 1

Setting the scene at the Alamodome

It hosts arguably the highest-caliber non-New Year’s Six bowl each year, serving as the backdrop to iconic college football moments such as TCU’s 31-0 comeback against Oregon and the 133-point Baylor-Washington shootout of 2011. But more recently, the Alamodome has become the renowned spot to watch Jeff Traylor and his blossoming UTSA program. The Roadrunners have squeezed 35,000 fans into the venue on six occasions, and two of those transpired last season — thrilling victories over conference opponents UAB and WKU.

“We’re just excited we have an opportunity to play in the Alamodome in front of our fans, and I’ve said this numerous times: we don’t beat Western Kentucky, we don’t beat UAB without them,” UTSA head coach Jeff Traylor said. “We need SOSA (Spirit of San Antonio) to outperform Houston’s band. We need our cheerleaders to outperform their cheerleaders. We need our fans to outperform their fans.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 03 C-USA Championship Game - Western Kentucky at UTSA
UTSA won the 2021 C-USA Championship Game in 49-41 fashion over WKU in its home venue. The onlooking Alamodome crowd consisted of a season-high 41,148 fans.
Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Houston has implemented certain measures to combat the rising phenomenon of Roadrunner fever, which is slated to resonate throughout the Alamodome Saturday afternoon.

“They said the Alamodome gets pretty loud, but we’ve played in some loud stadiums as well,” Houston free safety Gervarrius Owens said. “While we’re doing our plays and stuff, we’ve got the speakers and everything going — crazy distractions — so if we can’t hear each other, we’ll use hand signals or whatever we have to do to get the job done.”

Prior to the AAC Championship Game last season, the Cougars exhibited a 6-0 record in true road games. Houston assumes this role once again, and unlike its most recent visiting experience at Cincinnati, the Cougars are pegged as the favorite.

“I want to get this thing to a point where we’re always favored in the Alamodome, and we’re not,” Traylor said. “We’re an underdog. That’s because of Houston’s success, but it’s also still the doubt if UTSA is legit or not.”

Houston Cougars outlook

The 2022 season is an opportunity Houston must capitalize on. The No. 24 Cougars are ranked in the preseason AP Poll for the first time since 2016, garnering that national recognition after appearing in the AAC Championship Game and defeating Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl to cap a 12-2 season. They were voted to take home the conference crown at preseason media day, and each of the last five AAC champions have secured a spot in the New Year’s Six.

“Going into this season, we have a lot more guys who are actually hungry for the championship,” defensive end Nelson Ceaser said. “Playing in that game and coming up short, it hurts, especially when you’re out there trying to win. We have a lot of older guys, guys going into their last year — so I feel like this year, we’re hungrier.”

Dana Holgorsen’s squad learned last year that openers can be challenging. The Cougars squandered a two-touchdown lead to Texas Tech, tossing four interceptions and letting a highly-winnable game in a dome atmosphere at NRG Stadium escape them. The dome atmosphere returns for their 2022 opener. The in-state opponent also returns. And so does quarterback Clayton Tune.

NCAA Football: Birmingham Bowl-Houston at Auburn
Houston QB Clayton Tune earned MVP honors of the Birmingham Bowl victory over Auburn, firing for 281 yards and two touchdowns — including a 26-yard delivery for the win.
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Tune took major strides after that Texas Tech debacle last season, meteorically rising into the discussion among the nation’s top quarterbacks. Now a senior, he enters 2022 coming off a campaign of career-bests, throwing for 3,544 yards, 30 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions on a stellar 68.3 completion rate.

“He’s grown a lot as a leader,” tight end Christian Trahan said of Tune. “He takes strides every year. He gets better every year. He’s consistent. He stays ready. He looks like a whole new player this year. He’s ready to go.”

The quarterback has a bevy of talent around him at the skill positions, most notably the electrifying Nathaniel ‘Tank’ Dell. Name a receiving statistical category and odds are, Dell ranked top 20 nationally. The 5’10”, 165 pound receiver accumulated an AAC-best 1,329 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, ending on a rampage with four 150+ yard performances in his last seven showings. With 2022 NFL Draft selection Tariq Woolen gone from the UTSA secondary, Dell and a receiving group full of a litany of newcomers — including true freshman starter Matthew Golden — look to take advantage on the road.

“For me, it’s actually exciting because a lot of times I’m in the box blocking and stuff, so seeing those guys fly around, young guys stepping up and making plays, it’s just exciting to see,” Trahan said on the receiving corps.

While Houston’s offense was strong enough to produce the 15th highest scoring output in the FBS in 2021, the defense served as the team’s most coveted asset. The Cougars ranked sixth in fewest yards allowed and finished top 20 in nearly every facet of defense — including scoring defense, run defense, pass defense, takeaways, opponent third down percentage (No. 1 in the FBS), and sacks.

“Coach (Doug) Belk does a fantastic job,” Traylor said, highlighting Houston’s fourth-year defensive coordinator. “They have a great scheme. They have great players that believe in that scheme. They’re very physical. They run to the ball. They play with a great confidence. That’s pretty much the sum of all great defenses, and that’s what they are.”

The impressive sack numbers primarily originate from the defensive line, which earned the moniker “Sack Ave.” for its frequent backfield appearances. Despite losing NFL talent in Logan Hall and David Anenih, the unit remains strong and deep — to the point where team captain Derek Parish (5.0 sacks, 12.0 tackles for loss in 2021) is listed as the No. 2 option at one of the defensive end slots on the initial depth chart behind D’Anthony Jones (6.0 sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles in 2021).

“I really look up to D’Anthony Jones, to DA a lot because his get-off is outrageous,” Ceaser said. “He has the best get-off I’ve ever seen, so I just try to get with DA sometimes and try to understand what is it he’s actually looking at or what is he looking for when it comes to him getting off the ball.”

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Houston
Houston DE D’Anthony Jones registered more sacks last season than any other returning Cougar, despite primarily operating in a reserve role.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The depth of this d-line — which features five players that accumulated 3.5+ sacks last fall — allows fresh legs to rotate throughout the game. This clears the way for “Sack Ave.” to surge against a Roadrunner front lacking Spencer Burford, its lone First Team All-C-USA offensive line selection in 2021.

“I don’t remember how many sacks we had last year, but I knew we were at the top of the country in sacks,” Ceaser said. “With the experience that we have in the room, we should be able to double that.”

The secondary is where the most turnover is felt defensively as Houston replaces two NFL Draft selections at cornerback. Filling in for Marcus Jones and Damarion Williams are Art Green and Alex Hogan, who received ample playing time in 2021. Mixing in an experienced safety tandem, the secondary looks to sustain its 19th ranked passing defense from a year ago which limited opponents to a 55.2 completion percentage.

“Competition has been very high,” defensive coordinator Doug Belk said of the revamped defensive back group. “They’ve gotten quality reps against our receiving corps, which I think really good, so each day allows us a chance to get better... Those guys are gym rats and they want to be good players. They know the expectation that we have.”

UTSA Roadrunners outlook

Jeff Traylor’s Roadrunners set a lot of program “firsts” last season (first 12 win season, first division championship, first conference championship, etc.) but the program’s first win over a ranked opponent remains elusive. UTSA had its shot, drawing No. 24 San Diego State in the Frisco Bowl. While the Roadrunners competed fairly well, a depleted two-deep couldn’t hang with the Aztecs for four quarters.

Traylor’s squad will face a ranked opponent for the second straight game as the Houston Cougars come to town seeking to avenge an embarrassing 27-7 loss to the Roadrunners on the opening night of TDECU Stadium back in 2014.

“Arguably the best,” Traylor said, stating where this Houston team ranks among opponents he has faced in his tenure. “Their quarterback’s returning, their great receivers are returning. Their defense just plays differently. They’re a top 10 defense nationally. It’s an exciting time for us. It’s a really good opportunity to see how good we are.”

If the Roadrunners are to finally break through for their first ranked victory (and perhaps even join the Top 25 ranks themselves) they’ll likely need their new-look secondary to provide immediate results in Week 1. This restructured secondary for UTSA will feature transfers from Texas A&M, West Virginia, TCU, LSU, and a four-star JUCO addition. Will talent translate into production? The question weighs heavy over UTSA’s defense, as defending deep balls was the team’s biggest weakness last season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 04 TaxAct Texas Bowl - Kansas State v LSU
UTSA’s new-look defensive back room features numerous incoming transfers, including former LSU safety Pig Cage.
Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What better barometer to judge the strength of the secondary than the high-flying connection between Clayton Tune and Nathaniel Dell? We should know right away if UTSA’s secondary has taken a step forward over the offseason or not.

“Defensively, I think we’ve gone out and replaced those pieces that we lost, but that remains to be seen,” Traylor said. “The positive is a lot of guys are playing, which we’ve always been committed to doing since we’ve been here.”

While UTSA’s defense has many pieces to replace, the offense will have only a few new faces lining up for the first snap. Super senior Brenden Brady and Arkansas transfer Trelon Smith will split carries in the backfield in the aim of filling the void left behind by Sincere McCormick’s early declaration for the NFL Draft.

“I know we’ve got great receivers, but we’re committed to run the football as well,” Traylor said. “You’ve gotta try to run the football in my opinion. It might not hit early, but as the game wears on, you hope some of those plays become bigger.”

Most critical for the Roadrunners’ offense will be how they replace left tackle Spencer Burford who is expected to start for the San Francisco 49ers as a rookie. Burford was an absolute force for the Roadrunners, and there’s not an obvious backfill at the position. At the time of this writing it appears redshirt junior Demetris Allen and true sophomore Venly Tatafu are battling for the starting slot. Regardless of which Roadrunner wins the key position battle, they’ll each have their hands full against Houston’s imposing “Sack Ave.” pass rush attack.

As the Roadrunners have lost their top running back and two of their top run blockers (Burford and tight end Leroy Watson), expect new offensive coordinator Will Stein to steer UTSA’s offense into a more traditional spread attack. An 11 personnel offering will allow UTSA to make the most of quarterback Frank Harris and his three-headed monster wide receiver unit (Zakhari Franklin, Josh Cephus, JT Clark).

“Their guys are very physical. They have great attention to detail,” Belk said of UTSA’s offense. “Most of all — multiple different personnel groupings, a lot of shifts, a lot of motions, and their quarterback is their engine who makes them go. I’m very impressed with him. Sixth-year senior, very mature, does not get rattled, and knows what to do with the ball at all times.”

Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl - UTSA v San Diego State
UTSA QB Frank Harris earned Second Team All-C-USA honors in 2021 by passing for 3,177 yards and 27 touchdowns, with only six interceptions.
Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

UTSA may have some notable questions to answer in Week 1, but a spirited Alamodome crowd could be an x-factor. Jeff Traylor has lost just one home game throughout his tenure in San Antonio. We’ve seen the dome-amplification effect catch many strong teams off guard, leading to costly errors. With two strong teams this evenly matched, every false start or delay of game whistle could make a difference.

“Again, I’m gonna make this comment: we don’t beat Western Kentucky and UAB without an unbelievable fanbase,” Traylor said. “We’ve gotta have that crowd. They’ve gotta be there for us and be loud Saturday. When Clayton Tune has the ball, it’s got to be deafening. When Frank Harris has the ball, use your library voice.”


Jared Kalmus, UTSA beat writer: With both rosters flush with experienced talent, this game is going to deliver entertainment and suspense for both sides. I think both teams match up fairly evenly in all aspects of the game, with the exception of Houston’s secondary perhaps being a bit stronger than the Roadrunners’ inexperienced unit. If UTSA finds immediate production in the pass rush following Clarence Hicks’ graduation then I can definitely see them pulling the upset, but I think the Coogs will have one more big passing play in them than UTSA. Houston 35, UTSA 31

Steve Helwick, Houston beat writer: The Alamodome is going to be one of the top atmospheres in Week 1, and this matchup will serve as proof of why in-state non-conference battles are awesome. The returning quarterbacks and potent receiver talent on both sides suggest this could result in a shootout, but given the talent of the run defenses in this one, neither team may find success in establishing a viable ground game. Thus, expect plenty of aerial attempts, as Houston and UTSA lean more one-dimensional on offense. Clayton Tune and Tank Dell shouldn’t have trouble exploiting the Roadrunners’ secondary and Houston’s defensive line could cause problems for UTSA’s pass protection. However, the Alamodome (where UTSA has won 10 straight) serves as an equalizer, keeping the home team within striking distance. Houston 31, UTSA 27