Bowl season resumed Tuesday night in Frisco, TX with a collision between former CUSA opponents UTSA and Marshall. Both teams recently moved conferences, setting the stage for an AAC vs. Sun Belt matchup in a standalone bowl game where the Roadrunners eyed history. Since 2021, UTSA won back-to-back conference championships, appeared in AP Polls, and recorded 11 and 12 win seasons. Yet the one item left to check off was the team’s first-ever bowl victory.
However, the quest for that bowl victory took an unfortunate turn as prior to kickoff, quarterback Frank Harris took the field absent of his helmet and pads. It was supposed to be a storybook curtain call for the seventh-year senior and UTSA legend, but he was unable to play due to a shoulder injury sustained against Tulane on Nov. 24.
“I’d do anything to be out there with my teammates, but unfortunately I cannot,” Harris said in a statement released pregame. “God has something bigger in store for me. To the fans, thank you for all the love and support over the last seven seasons. I truly appreciate it and don’t take it for granted. It’s something I will remember for the rest of my life. I won’t be able to play tonight, but I’ll be right there on the sideline supporting and cheering on my teammates to what we hope is our first bowl win.”
With Harris out of the lineup, UTSA turned to backup Owen McCown, who made his first start with the Roadrunners. McCown, the son of former NFL quarterback Josh McCown, wasn’t the only quarterback with NFL bloodlines in this matchup. Marshall countered with Cole Pennington, the son of Chad Pennington in a battle between redshirt freshmen backups making their fourth and third collegiate starts Tuesday night, respectively.
Even without a program icon, UTSA manufactured history at Toyota Stadium in Frisco. That coveted objective of winning a bowl game finally transpired after three consecutive seasons winding up on the losing end. UTSA stormed back from a 14-0 deficit to claim a convincing 35-17 win over Marshall, and a lively celebration ensued. Head coach Jeff Traylor received a coffee bath courtesy of Frisco Bowl sponsor Scooter’s Coffee, while the players and fans collectively celebrated on the field in an emotional, crowning moment for the 13-year old football program.
“I’ve been lucky in my life because I’ve won a lot of big games, but my kids have always taken care of me and they’ve never really got me before,” Traylor said on the coffee bath. “But because of the bowl, I agreed I would take one for the team. I’ve got to talk to the Frisco Bowl. The temperature is in the mid-40s, maybe some warm coffee. If I got pneumonia tomorrow, I’m gonna be upset if signing day I’m in the hospital.”
UTSA scored 35 of the final 38 points, dominating the final two-and-a-half quarters thanks to an Offensive MVP showing by Joshua Cephus, who posted 102 yards and a touchdown on seven receptions in a sendoff performance.
“I was excited for Cephus,” Harris said. “I was excited for him to try to get the (program receiving yards) record and he went out there and achieved it. I’m excited for him to go out there in that fashion. He was very hurt he wasn’t able to play in the last bowl game. To see him come out there and perform how he performed and get the MVP, God’s real. You couldn’t have written it any better.”
Despite five end zone appearances, offensive struggles were prominent in the early going for UTSA. The Roadrunners possessed the ball five separate times in the first quarter, and not a single drive lasted two minutes. They threw two interceptions and punted three times, picking up just 15 rushing yards and one passing yard on those five series. That sluggish start allowed Marshall to construct a 14-0 advantage. The Thundering Herd created their first touchdown thanks to inside linebacker Eli Neal intercepting a pass off a deflection at the UTSA 7-yard line. For the second touchdown, running back Rasheen Ali set a Frisco Bowl record by sprinting 64 yards to the house with track star speed. However, Ali was unavailable to play in the second half after accumulating 92 yards in the first two quarters.
“I don’t know exactly what it was, but something happened in one of those plays and then we were kind of rolling with what we had,” Marshall head coach Charles Huff said of Ali’s injury. “We knew it kind of happened around the same time when we were in that range where we had to throw it a bit more. We had planned to have him on a pitch count anyway, but when it got to the point where we had to throw it, we had to get in different personnels and that kind of deal.”
As with most comebacks, there is always a specific turning point. Down two touchdowns and staring down a 3rd and 14, another punt seemed to be a likely outcome for UTSA. Instead, McCown fired a perfectly placed deep ball to Tykee Ogle-Kellogg for a 41-yard pickup, which set up a Robert Henry rushing touchdown. One drive later, McCown retained his rhythm and connected with Cephus on a screen for a 43-yard touchdown. UTSA racked up 230 second quarter yards after posting 16 in the opening frame, and by halftime, the comeback was already completed — transforming a 14-0 deficit into a 21-17 advantage.
“Got off to a rough start, threw the two interceptions early, but our defense just kept us in it,” Traylor said. “I thought the play to Tykee was a huge play to get us started. It was an unbelievable throw and catch. Then coming back to Josh and him getting a long one in there — doesn't surprise me, those two seniors have been doing that all year. It was the epitome of our team. We haven’t been just beautiful all year. We’ve been kind of a gritty, ‘Triangle of Toughness’ type team.”
McCown started 1-of-6 for one yard and two interceptions while taking a slew of hits in the backfield. Despite every reason to fold, the first-year Roadrunner kept his poise and completed 21 of his next 25 attempts for 250 yards and two touchdowns in a critical moment in UTSA history.
“The kid’s gritty, he’s tough,” Traylor said. “How about the hits he took early. He just kept getting up and maybe those hits knocked some of the silly decisions he was making out of him and once he got right — he’s a way better athlete than people think he is. His escapability in the pocket was big tonight and the plays he made on the run were big. He’s a tough kid.”
The Roadrunners’ rally didn’t quell after it halftime. In fact, it only grew stronger. UTSA pitched a second half shutout by means of a relentless defense. They entered the contest without AAC Defensive Player of the Year Trey Moore, who ranked third in the FBS in sacks. Yet, the team produced six with seven different Roadrunners earning a share of a sack. The Frisco Bowl win was a testament to depth UTSA exuded on that side of the ball this season.
“We play three deep all year long,” Traylor said. “Our kids are not selfish at all. They know they’re sharing reps, but we’re really deep. It’s the only way we survived tonight. We were running out of people quickly, and somebody else just kept coming in there, so great job.”
UTSA’s defensive depth was pushed to its limit as multiple starters suffered injuries throughout the night. Among them was strong safety Rashad Wisdom, a longtime captain and the heart and soul of the unit. Wisdom missed the second half of his final game in his five seasons with the Roadrunners, but other defensive backs stepped up to accomplish the year-long objective.
Among them was Defensive MVP Kam Alexander who sealed the contest with a pivotal play in the early fourth quarter. Middle linebacker Avery Morris sacked Pennington, and the Marshall quarterback checked out of the game for one play. Backup Colin Parachek fulfilled relief duties for one play, and his first FBS pass was intercepted by Alexander, who fielded a 58-yard return. Then, running back Rocko Griffin threw in the dagger one play later with a 17-yard touchdown scamper.
“It was us being mentally focused,” Alexander said. “We had to stay on our toes, because at the end of the day, they’re a really good team. Really, it was just listening to the coaches and doing your job which really got us winning tonight.”
Marshall (6-7, 3-5 Sun Belt) finishes a season in unfamiliar territory. The Thundering Herd are sub .500 for the first time since 2016, dropping seven of their final nine after a 4-0 start. Huff believes the brutal finish to a promising year could be what the program needs to get back on the right trajectory.
“Last year we finished 9-4 and everybody told us how great we were, and I don’t know if we let that affect us,” Huff said. “Hopefully this is a great opportunity for us to go back to ground zero and understand that every single day we have to come out and earn the right to be really, really good. There’s nothing wrong with positive reinforcement, but praise or criticism, you can’t have too much of either. So this is a really good opportunity for us to take a look in the mirror — coaches as well — how good do we want to be? How hard are we willing to work to be that? And then are we able to stay humble enough to attain that?”
UTSA (9-4, 7-1 AAC) earned a historical win it sought for in its 12 years of FBS membership, and the long wait was evident in the fervent celebration at Toyota Stadium, which lasted roughly 45 minutes after Traylor’s coffee bath. When the players finally exited the field, the consequential senior class closed the curtain with an assortments of accomplishments, ranging from back-to-back conference titles to their first-ever bowl win.
“It feels great,” Cephus said. “It’s another box checked. Whenever our class came in — the 2019 class — we said we wanted to change how people looked at UTSA. The first thing was getting a ring. We got two of those. The next thing was winning a bowl game. It feels great to check that off the list.”