There was a palpable sense of energy felt in the San Antonio air Saturday.
Perhaps it was the presence of the solar eclipse — as San Antonio was one of the fortunate cities to be located in the eclipse’s “ring of fire,” where the astronomical phenomenon made its brightest impact. Perhaps it was the anticipation of Victor Wembanyama, the generationally-touted 7’3” French phenom one week away from making his highly-awaited debut with the San Antonio Spurs.
But inside the Alamodome located in the heart of the city, fans decked in orange and blue celebrated their renewed faith in the UTSA Roadrunners. UTSA returned to the Alamodome for the first time in four weeks, equipped with a healthy starting quarterback in Frank Harris, while flashing a spotless conference record. Although the first third of the season featured trials and tribulations, the Roadrunners maintained their unblemished mark in conference play, skating past UAB, 41-20 Saturday night.
“It took us six games, but we finally put together our first complete game the entire season,” UTSA head coach Jeff Traylor said. “I thought we were going to have a really good night offensively. I felt good about that, but I didn’t know we were gonna be able to stop them. I thought red zone defense was gonna be really huge, and could we get some turnovers, and both of those things showed up. We played better defensively than I thought we were even capable of tonight.”
UTSA couldn’t have ordered a better start. The Roadrunners lost their first coin toss of the season and wound up on the receiving end of the kickoff, but that was exactly the spark the offense desperately craved. Prior to Saturday, UTSA started all five of its contests on defense and failed to register a single point on their initial offensive drive. This time, Harris and the Roadrunners rapidly picked apart the UAB defense with short passes and running back Robert Henry applied the finishing touches. Henry pierced into the red zone on a 14-yard run where he hurdled a UAB defender, and one snap later, he raced 19 yards into the end zone to establish UTSA’s first 7-0 lead of the year.
“I actually contemplated taking the ball first instead of deferring,” Traylor said. “They gave us the ball, and that made it even better because I kind of got what I wanted without even having to tell my defense. But yeah, it was really good to see.”
The defense fed off the stellar offensive start and perfectly complemented the unit. The first two defensive plays sniffed out UAB screens for losses of four and five yards. On the Blazers’ third offensive snap, Roadrunners star outside linebacker Trey Moore recorded the trifecta. He spun his way into the backfield to register a sack, stripped the ball in the process, and recovered his own creation at the 10-yard line. Supported by ideal field position, it only took one play for Harris to connect with his top target Joshua Cephus in the end zone for a 14-0 advantage.
“It gives us momentum for sure, and having a short field helps the offense out a ton,” Harris said. “We hope to get those every game. It means a lot to us. It makes it a lot easier for the play calls and for the offense as a whole.”
In his first home appearance and second game overall since returning from a turf toe injury, Harris chipped away at the UAB defense with a series of short passes. His longest completion spanned 17 yards, but most importantly, he refrained from committing a turnover in an 171-yard, 2-touchdown performance with both touchdowns landing in the hands of Cephus — who became the program’s all-time leading receptions leader in the process.
“It was a long offseason,” said Harris, who endured multiple left knee surgeries in the spring. “Turf toe — what are the odds I mess my toe up? Just going back out there is a blessing. It just means a lot. Going back out there and playing with my teammates — they have the utmost respect for me and I definitely appreciate that and that means a lot to me. I just try to go out there and play football like I know how.”
UTSA’s pass rush struck immediately out of the gate and sustained a high level of play through four quarters. Moore, who battled through injury, concluded the night with 3.5 of the Roadrunners’ six sacks. Even strong safety Rashad Wisdom joined the party in the backfield — recording his first sack since 2019 on a second quarter blitz. Led by Moore, UTSA ran laps around UAB in the backfield invasion movement, finishing with 12 tackles for loss while the Blazers only sacked Harris once.
“We just executed really and people were winning their one-on-ones. It was really that simple,” Moore said. “A lot of it was four down rush. We weren’t really running too many blitzes. We did run some blitzes, but it wasn’t a lot. Coaches just let us play free and we won our one-on-ones.”
UAB’s offense, fresh off a 56-point explosion against South Florida, didn’t replicate its performance from the prior week but still saw flashes of success in the first two-and-a-half quarters. Quarterback Jacob Zeno displayed tremendous efficiency for this portion of the contest, completing 13 of his 17 passes to lead the Blazers on a pair of touchdown drives, while running back Jermaine Brown Jr. exploded for team-highs in rushing (57) and receiving (116) yards. However, Zeno took a fair share of hits from a relentless UTSA front and exited the contest in the late third quarter and was briefly replaced by Louisiana Tech transfer Landry Lyddy.
One interesting development in this game was the abundance of double pass trick plays. After watching Army succeed with this play call four weeks ago at the Alamodome, UAB unleashed this gadget play twice in the first half. The Blazers’ first double pass flourished, as Terrell McDonald found Brown uncovered for a 55-yard pickup — a drive which resulted in a Blazer field goal. UAB threw an incompletion when reverting to this call in the second quarter, but when UTSA attempted it, disaster unfolded. The Roadrunners left points on the board at halftime when Harris lateraled the ball to Cephus, who tried to lob the ball to tight end Oscar Cardenas in the back of the end zone. Cephus’ throw bolted right into the gloves of cornerback BJ Mayes, who evened the turnover battle at 1-1.
“He became the all-time leading (receptions) leader in the history of our school, so I teased him,” Traylor said of Cephus. “You’re the all-time leading receiving record, but you also have the worst quarterback rating in the history of our school. But Josh can throw the heck out of that ball. He really can. There’s nobody that practices throwing the ball more than Josh Cephus.”
UTSA’s turnover seemed costly at the beginning of the third quarter when the Blazers traversed 75 yards down the turf in 12 plays, hitting paydirt on a 25-yard touchdown run by Brown to slice the deficit to 24-20. But the Roadrunners kicked it into another gear, and the game’s close nature didn’t last long. Running back Kevorian Barnes punched the ball into the end zone roughly three minutes later to reclaim a double-digit lead. Then, UTSA’s defense handled business from there. The Roadrunners forced consecutive punts and cornerback Kam Alexander added the icing by picking off Zeno deep in UAB territory for UTSA’s first interception of the year.
UTSA only accumulated three takeaways in its first five games, but managed to definitively win the turnover battle against the Blazers, 3-1, with 14 points stemming from those momentum swings.
“I think it’s just finishing the plays,” Moore said. “We were getting there and stuff, but now we’re really emphasizing getting the ball away and flying around to the ball. So we’ve got a lot of defensive players around the ball and there’s more chance to get turnovers. Once you start seeing it happen, people start getting the confidence and feeling that it could be them, so everyone’s trying to get to the ball.”
UAB (2-5, 1-2 AAC) is now one loss swaying from tying its most in a season since the football program returned from a hiatus in 2017. The Blazers instantly walk into a challenging matchup next Saturday, hosting Memphis in a renewed rivalry in hopes of starving off a sixth defeat.
UTSA (3-3, 2-0 AAC) has never dropped a conference game since obtaining AAC membership this summer. The Roadrunners are winners of two-straight, piling on 45 points per game in conference matchups after averaging under 20 in non-conference play. Although the early slate featured some crushing losses, faith within the program has been restored, knowing the Roadrunners are right in the mix for a third consecutive conference championship — with a healthy balanced of potent offense and suffocating defense.
“It means everything,” Moore said regarding the team’s unbeaten AAC record. “We had a really rough non-conference schedule, didn’t end up the way we wanted it to be. But I believe it made us who we are to this point, and we’re rolling because of that.”