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2023 Week 13 Game Preview: UTSA Roadrunners @ Tulane Green Wave

AAC Championship Game stakes are on the line for both teams which are spotless in conference play.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 18 Tulane at Florida Atlantic Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Game notes

  • Time and date: Friday, November 24 at 3:30 p.m. ET
  • Network: ABC
  • Location: Yulman Stadium — New Orleans, LA
  • Spread: Tulane (-3)
  • Over/under: 52.5
  • All-time series: UTSA leads, 1-0
  • Last meeting: UTSA 10, Tulane 7 — November 9, 2013
  • Current streak: UTSA, 1 (2013)

Setting the scene

It’s the AAC regular season game of the year, perfectly preserved for the final week of action.

UTSA (8-3, 7-0 AAC) travels to Tulane (10-1, 7-0) in a battle between two of the conference’s three perfect records. The winner is automatically admitted into the AAC Championship. But the loser cannot qualify for the event if SMU defeats Navy on Saturday.

UTSA rolls into this game on a 7-game win streak while Tulane has collected 9-straight wins heading into this critical matchup. New Year’s Six stakes are also on the line, primarily for No. 23 Tulane, which controls its own destiny for a second consecutive appearance to college football’s most prestigious slate of bowls.

The Green Wave and Roadrunners were No. 1 and No. 2 in the preseason AP Poll, but one of them will squander their perfect ACC record. This high-stakes matchup between the reigning AAC champion and reigning CUSA champion is fittingly broadcast on the national stage of ABC on Black Friday.


UTSA Roadrunners outlook

UTSA transitioned from the CUSA to the AAC this year, but one thing remained constant amidst the jump — the Roadrunners know how to win conference games. In the last three years under head coach Jeff Traylor, UTSA is 24-1 against league opponents, and two of those wins are CUSA Championship Game victories. Continuing the hot streak at Tulane on Saturday can perfectly position the Roadrunners for their third-straight conference championship appearance.

But UTSA hasn’t seen competition like Tulane during this 7-game win streak. All seven opponents the Roadrunners knocked off in AAC play exhibit sub-.500 records, so the Green Wave represent a significant bump-up in competition from the past few weeks. However, UTSA has been quite dominant against the rest of the AAC. Six of those seven victories were by at least 14 points, and the team hasn’t trailed for a single second in the second half in conference play.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 17 USF at UTSA
UTSA QB Frank Harris won the Davey O’Brien Award Co-National QB of the Week for his 411-passing, 112-rushing yard performance vs. South Florida.
Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The captain of the ship remains the same one as usual. Seventh-year senior quarterback Frank Harris has been a member of the UTSA roster for more than 50 percent of the seasons in program history, and he keeps pushing the limits of what he’s capable of. Harris has several all-conference nods, a CUSA MVP award, and two conference championships, but last Friday was the magnum opus of his four years as UTSA’s starter. On an emotional senior night at the Alamodome, Harris posted 411 passing yards, 112 rushing yards, and accounted for six total touchdowns to upend South Florida, 49-21.

Harris is capable of taking over a game through the air, and that was his third 330+ yard performance of 2023. He’s always been a mobile quarterback, and while that attribute was challenged by multiple offseason leg surgeries, he continues to improve as a runner with each passing week — breaking out for a 30-yard run in three-straight games after not attaining one in his first six starts. Everything Harris does is with efficiency too. He hasn’t thrown an interception in three games and is on track for his fourth consecutive season tossing under 10 picks as the Roadrunners’ full-time starter.

Outside of Harris, UTSA racks up its ground yardage through a committee of three tailbacks. Kevorian Barnes has been the feature for the majority of the season, and the sophomore missed last week’s contest but could return after the long week. Barnes is the only running back to eclipse the century mark this year, which he’s done three times, but Rocko Griffin has attained at least 65 yards in three of his last four outings while Robert Henry claims a 7-game streak of scoring at least one rushing touchdown.

Perhaps the most dominant skill position player on the Roadrunner offense resides in the receiving corps. Joshua Cephus just became UTSA’s all-time receiving yards leader on senior night thanks to a 163-yard domination, and he’s 34 yards away from hitting the millennium mark on the year. Cephus is especially talented operating in space, and UTSA will design a slew of screens for him to utilize those abilities. The Roadrunners like to go deep as well, and Tykee Ogle-Kellogg is the preferred downfield option with a 40-yard catch in five different games this year. Devin McCuin and tight end Oscar Cardenas are among the other threats Tulane’s secondary must be wary of, because UTSA noticeably runs deep at receiver and tight end.

UTSA’s offense generated at least 34 points in all seven AAC games with an average of 41 per game. The defense provides solid support with a per game allotment of 22.1 points, holding six consecutive opponents below 30.

Every offensive line will key one the Roadrunner wearing the No. 1 uniform. Outside linebacker Trey Moore is a focal point of film study for opponents, ranking second in the FBS in sacks with 14.0 on the season. Four of Moore’s last six games featured multiple sacks, and he’s not alone in leading the charge on quarterbacks. UTSA is fourth in the country in sacks per game as a unit, receiving additional contributions from players like outside linebacker Jimmori Robinson and defensive tackle Brandon Matterson.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 09 Texas State at UTSA
UTSA OLB Trey Moore ranks second nationally and first in the AAC in sacks with 14.0 on the year. He is a three-time AAC Defensive Player of the Week.
Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As expected, a team able to rush the quarterback as well as UTSA is potent at defending the run. The Roadrunners surrender 129.5 rushing yards per game on a 3.6 average, and inside linebackers Martavius French and Jamal Ligon are among the top standouts in that department for a team which is sixth nationally in tackles for loss.

One reason for midseason defensive improvement is the onslaught of turnovers caused by the secondary. Generating turnovers in non-conference play was a struggle during UTSA’s 1-3 start, but now, they’re commonplace for Traylor’s squad. This team has only lost one turnover battle in AAC play, winning the past three weeks by a combined margin of 6-1. Strong safety Rashad Wisdom is one of the havoc playmakers in the secondary with four forced fumbles and five interceptions in his UTSA career, as is cornerback Kameryn Alexander who has a pick and AAC-best 12 pass deflections on the year. Still, limiting home run plays remains crucial for the secondary as UTSA’s passing defense checks in at 100th in the FBS in yards allowed.


Tulane Green Wave outlook

Tulane is the standard bearer of the AAC. The Green Wave are reigning conference champions, they’re reigning Cotton Bowl champions, and they’re operating with a ranking next to their name — hoping to replicate both of those aforementioned feats in 2023. Willie Fritz’s team has been in this exact situation before. Last year on Black Friday, Tulane needed to snap Cincinnati’s 32-game home winning streak in order to clinch the AAC Championship Game and secure hosting duties. Now, the Green Wave are required to snap UTSA’s streak of 15 consecutive conference wins in order to send the conference title game back to Yulman Stadium.

The Green Wave ride a 9-game win streak, and their only defeat was a Week 2 home matchup against Ole Miss that starting quarterback Michael Pratt missed due to a knee injury. Tulane has won 13 in a row with Pratt in the lineup, and his veteran leadership provides reassurance to the team regardless of how close the score may be.

NCAA Football: Tulsa at Tulane
Tulane QB Michael Pratt has won each of his last 13 starts. Last week featured his second-highest completion total of the year at 21.
Matthew Dobbins-USA TODAY Sports

Tulane has involved itself in plenty of close games lately, even against the lower tier competition of the AAC. The Green Wave are fresh off their most convincing victory in AAC play, erasing Florida Atlantic by a margin of 16 points. But the four games prior to FAU were matchups against sub-.500 teams (North Texas, Rice, East Carolina, Tulsa) decided by one score. Good teams find ways to win in any situation, and that’s what Tulane does. They didn’t trail at all in the second half of any of those games, remaining in control despite the tight result on the scoreboard.

One reason Tulane flew past Florida Atlantic with ease was the dominant nature of its passing attack. Pratt completed 21-of-28 passes for 252 yards and three touchdowns. The fourth-year starter and former All-AAC selection hasn’t been called upon to take over games with his arm this year, but he remains incredibly efficient on dropbacks with a completion percentage of 68.9. Pratt hasn’t exceeded 300 yards or handled more than 31 attempts in 2023, but Tulane might need to break out his passing abilities in a consequential game like this — similar to how the team approached the mid-October Memphis game.

Pratt operated with a shorthanded receiving corps in recent weeks, bereft of two of his top three targets against Florida Atlantic — Lawrence Keys III and Jha’Quan Jackson. Keys remains out for a second consecutive week, but Fritz stated he is “hopeful” Jackson is able to return in his weekly press conference. With 17.4 yards per reception, Jackson is a quintessential speedy deep threat, regularly hauling in 35+ yard air mails from Pratt. Recently, Chris Brazzell II has stepped up amidst all the injuries at receiver. He caught a career-high seven passes last Saturday and converted those opportunities into 103 yards. Brazzell will play a major role in the passing game, as will tight ends Alex Bauman and Chris Carter who have thrived as short-yardage specialists in recent weeks.

Another position group which featured many injuries throughout the month of November was the offensive line. This unit features two reigning First Team All-AAC selections in left guard Prince Pines and center Sincere Haynesworth. Four of the five starters were in action last week, with only right tackle Rashad Green missing due to injury. Offensive line plays a substantial role for Tulane — not just in pass protection against Trey Moore and the sack-happy Roadrunners, but paving the way for the run game is key.

The ground is Tulane’s preferred method of moving the ball. Running back Makhi Hughes has taken on the role as the offense’s supreme workhorse running back. He’s the AAC’s leading rusher with 1,080 yards and last week saw the end of his FBS-high 6-game streak of attaining at least 100. Hughes has fielded 19 or more carries in every AAC game, so expect Tulane to give UTSA’s defense a heavy dose of the running back until the Roadrunners prove to stop him on a consistent basis.

The Green Wave offense uses the run game to hog up time of possession, a metric in which they rank 11th nationally. Where Tulane usually earns its victories is on the defensive side of things. This is the 18th ranked scoring defense at 18.5 points per game and not a single AAC team has broken 30 points on the Green Wave.

NCAA Football: Tulane at Memphis
Tulane DE Darius Hodges is the team leader in sacks with 7.5. He added two to the total last week at Florida Atlantic.
Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Tulane is most lethal at defending the run, holding the No. 3 spot in the FBS in fewest rushing yards allowed. Teams pick up an average of 77.7 yards per game on 2.8 per carry, as the Green Wave’s incredibly physical defensive line makes establishing the run difficult. Patrick Jenkins headlines it all as the defensive tackle with 9.0 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks on the season. Defensive end Devean Deal is another terrific backfield stopper with a team-high 11 tackles for loss while his partner-in-crime Darius Hodges is the team’s best pass rusher on the opposite side of the line.

The Green Wave run defense receives ample support from the linebacking corps as well, led by run stoppers Jesus Machado and Tyler Grubbs, who combine for 135 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss on the year. But Tulane’s pass defense numbers aren’t as remarkable, checking in at 110th nationally in defending the air. While the Green Wave are susceptible to allowing receivers to post big numbers, they make up for it with interceptions. Led by cornerback Lance Robinson’s four on the season, Tulane is tied for 14th in the FBS with 12 total picks on the year.


Prediction

This all-important AAC clash has all the makings of a close game with a fantastic finish.

Neither UTSA nor Tulane has experienced a losing locker room since September. The Roadrunner offense and Green Wave defense are each playing on an extraordinary level right now, and those units are highly responsible for these impressive win streaks.

The quarterback battle between Michael Pratt and Frank Harris is going to catch many eyeballs, but in reality, both offenses are well-balanced with great assistance from the running back rooms and offensive lines. Also, Tulane and UTSA each showcase excellent defensive lines in this matchup and that disruption in the trenches is what’s going to prevent this one from being a high-scoring bout.

Although Tulane presents homefield advantage, all three Green Wave losses in the past two years transpired at Yulman Stadium. And although some of this is due to their “pound the rock, control the clock” play style, Green Wave haven’t been able to light up the scoreboard to the same degree UTSA has. Harris and the Roadrunner offense will be the deciding factor in pulling off the road upset to clinch an AAC Championship Game appearance.

Prediction: UTSA 26, Tulane 24