- Time and date: Saturday, October 14 at 8:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPNU
- Location: Alamodome — San Antonio, TX
- Spread: UTSA (-9)
- Over/under: 67
- All-time series: UAB leads, 4-3
- Last meeting: UTSA 44, UAB 38 — November 5, 2022
- Current streak: UTSA, 2 (2021-22)
Setting the scene
The last two iterations of the UAB and UTSA series were thrillers in every sense of the word.
In 2021, an undefeated and nationally ranked UTSA team fielded a punt with 1:06 remaining on its own 23-yard line with zero timeouts. Trailing by four, Frank Harris guided the Roadrunners down the field at warp speed, finding wide receiver De’Corian Clark at the 10-yard line. The following play, Harris thought he had a lane to the end zone but was stonewalled at the 1. UTSA quickly reset itself to snap the ball, but Harris fumbled the snap. He quickly picked it up and fired the ball to the end zone. It was tipped by UAB, but landed in the waiting arms of tight end Oscar Cardenas with three seconds left to secure a 34-31 victory.
In 2022, the series moved to Birmingham, except this time, UAB played the role as the comeback kids. The Blazers trailed by 14 with under five minutes remaining, but quarterback Jacob Zeno sliced the deficit to seven on a short touchdown run and UAB’s defense held firm with a stop. Taking possession down seven with 1:15 to go, Zeno replicated Harris’ heroics from the prior year. Operating with zero timeouts, the Blazers reached the UTSA 38-yard line with 21 seconds left. That was when Zeno let it fly to Trea Shropshire on a go route which brought home the tying touchdown. Both teams scored in the first overtime period, but UTSA claimed its second-straight win in the series when Harris found a wide open Joshua Cephus for a touchdown in double overtime, while the Roadrunner defense forced an incompletion on a do-or-die 4th and 16.
So based on recent history, to say we’re in for a show when these two opponents meet is an understatement.
UAB Blazers outlook
UAB (2-4, 1-1 AAC) rewrote the script of its 2023 season last Saturday afternoon in Birmingham. The Blazers were pegged as home underdogs to a much-improved South Florida squad, but the Bulls’ defense was no match for Jacob Zeno and Co. UAB trounced South Florida, 56-35, behind Zeno’s 353 passing yards and four passing touchdowns, while running back Jermaine Brown Jr. added 116 rushing yards and four touchdowns from the ground. Not only did the offense produce 608 yards in the victory, but the defense generated a series of stops by collecting three takeaways and holding the Bulls to 24-of-44 passing.
The prior outing was a tough-fought road matchup at Tulane, where the Blazers were within reasonable striking distance until the final minute. It took several weeks for UAB to enter a rhythm under first-year head coach Trent Dilfer, but the Blazers appear to be on a promising trajectory after dropping three non-conference matchups by multiple scores.
Bill Clark UAB teams were more renowned for defensive prowess and often participated in low-scoring affairs. This Blazers team takes on an opposite approach, and they often find themselves involved in high-flying shootouts. UAB allowed an average of 46.3 points per game to its first three FBS opponents this year and it let up 35 points to both AAC teams on the schedule thus far. Defense is certainly not the strongpoint of this squad, which surrenders the seventh most rushing yards and seventh most points per game in the entire FBS.
But offense is absolutely where UAB makes its money. Zeno sits top 10 in the country in passing yards, racking up 299 per contest. And the first-year full-time starter isn’t even singling it erratically in an offense which fires 39.7 passes per game, which is ninth in the FBS. Of the 32 quarterbacks with 180 attempts this season, Zeno ranks first in completion percentage at 75.5.
It’s a bit of an identity shift offensively for UAB which fielded the nation’s second-leading rusher in 2022 in DeWayne McBride. The Blazers still receive strong production from running backs Jermaine Brown Jr. and Isaiah Jacobs in the run game, but the team prefers to drop back and accumulate yardage through the air. That makes wide receiver Tejhaun Palmer the team leader in yards from scrimmage this year with 350 yards on 22 receptions.
But UAB can’t afford to get in a track meet every single week. Stronger defensive play will be required going forward. That starts with the ability to get off the field in critical situations, which is something the Blazers haven’t done this year. Only Stanford and Kent State exhibit allow third down conversions at a higher clip than UAB, which lets up 52.6 percent of opponent attempts this year.
The key names to watch on this UAB defense are defensive tackle Fish McWilliams and free safety Keondre Swoopes. McWilliams was a Second Team All-CUSA selection in 2022 after a season accruing 32 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and a pair of sacks, but McWilliams’ production is difficult to summarize with just a stat sheet. The 6’1”, 305 pound lineman commands so much attention on the interior that it alters blocking schemes and offensive gameplans. Then on the back end, Swoopes is the do-it-all safety. The last line of defense leads the team with 38 tackles, and he’s been a longtime coverage specialist in Birmingham, entering Saturday with career totals of 15 pass breakups and five interceptions.
UTSA Roadrunners outlook
UTSA (2-3, 1-0 AAC) already features its highest regular season total in the loss column since 2020. But the Roadrunners’ early season mishaps do not hinder the team’s odds of competing for the AAC title game in their first year with the conference. UTSA endured a grind of a non-conference schedule with road trips to Houston and Tennessee while hosting the likes of Texas State and Army. But during the Week 2 win over Texas State, the Roadrunners suffered a major loss.
Star quarterback Frank Harris suffered a turf toe injury which held him out of Weeks 3 and 4. The seventh-year senior is greatly responsible for UTSA’s recent run of success, and the Roadrunner offense severely missed him during his absence. Entering Week 5 at Temple, UTSA averaged under 20 points per game but inserting Harris back into the lineup ignited the spark the Roadrunners so desperately craves. In its first-ever AAC matchup, a Harris-led UTSA dropped seven touchdowns on Temple, outlasting the Owls in a 49-34 shootout.
UTSA’s offense is now functioning at a high level again, and Harris looks to carry that success back to the Alamodome after posting an efficient 335-yard, 3-touchdown, turnover-free outing. The super senior quarterback is renowned for his mobility as well, but that element of his game hasn’t been prevalent this year while dealing with turf toe and coming off numerous left knee surgeries. Still, the reigning CUSA MVP remains a force, and UAB is well-familiar with his talents after he racked up 708 passing yards and seven touchdowns in the previous two meetings versus the Blazers.
Harris is still waiting for De’Corian Clark to return from an ACL injury to further bolster the receiving corps, but the group he has now is more than viable. Joshua Cephus is the overwhelming No. 1 target with a team-high 38 receptions for 386 yards. UTSA frequently utilizes the senior on designed screens, but when targeting deep, Tykee Ogle-Kellogg and Devin McCuin are go-to options. The two combined for 177 yards on 19.7 per reception at Temple, and they flaunt the highest averages of any receiver with more than one reception on the roster.
Kevorian Barnes is the feature back in the run game with 337 yards on the season, but JUCO All-American Robert Henry is seeing increased reps lately in his first fall with the Roadrunners. Henry posted a season-high 78 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries last week, and UTSA may operate with a split backfield going forward.
The Roadrunners were sharp defensively against Houston and Texas State, allowing 30 combined points to those in-state opponents. But since Week 3, the unit has yielded 34 or more on each occasion. Letting up explosive plays in the pass game is the primary issue, and UTSA is situated at 111th in the nation in defending the air. Temple attempted 65 passes on the Roadrunners last Saturday, attaining 472 yards and five touchdowns without throwing an interception.
And that leads to UTSA’s other defensive issue this season — generating takeaways. The Roadrunners are one of four teams yet to intercept a single pass this year. After recovering two fumbles at Temple last week, they now have registered just three takeaways on the season. UTSA looks toward outside linebacker Trey Moore — team-high 4.0 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss — to create enough havoc in the UAB backfield to force ill-advised throws. Increased pressure can benefit the Rashad Wisdom-led secondary into creating turnover opportunities and limiting UAB from another explosive performance.
Just stare at the UAB and UTSA scores from Week 6. And for fun, look at the scores of the last two meetings between these former CUSA, turned AAC programs.
We’re probably in for a shootout. Jacob Zeno and Frank Harris can sling it and both quarterbacks look destined for dominant showings based on their recent outings, while also factoring in how these secondaries have looked. The scoreboard operator at the Alamodome will have a busy night, as Tejhaun Palmer and Tykee Ogle-Kellogg are among the explosive receiving threats that will be targeted early and often in this matchup.
The difference will be UTSA’s higher-performing defense. With a more adept pass rush, Trey Moore and the Roadrunners will provide more pressure on Zeno than UAB exacts on Harris, and that should force enough incompletions, third down stops, and possibly turnovers to hand UTSA a 2-0 start to AAC play.
Prediction: UTSA 40, UAB 31