By Jerry Briggs
After the winds of change swept through the UTSA football program last January, members of a new coaching staff moved in and started work immediately, trying to get to know the players.
From spring training camp, to fall camp. From film study, to meetings and on to the practice field, they toiled together as one, trying to mesh into a winning program.
By all accounts, the get-acquainted period has come and gone long ago.
Nevertheless, a first-year coaching staff under the direction of 42-year-old Frank Wilson continues to tinker, trying to figure what makes each one of its 117 players tick.
The players, in turn, are still sizing up the coaches.
Within the past week, the relationship between both sides evolved once again with a significant, albeit painful, experience. Coaches and players both discovered for the first time how each would react after a loss.
Also, how each would react to the challenge of preparing for a nationally-televised game against an explosive opponent from the Pac-12 Conference.
By all accounts, the Roadrunners (1-1) remain resolute in their ambitions in spite of last week’s 23-14 loss at Colorado State, unified -- and hungry -- to make amends on Friday night at the Alamodome against the Arizona State Sun Devils (2-0).
“Our intent is to win,” Wilson said. “I don’t know if we will. But that’s our intent.”
In its sixth year as a program, UTSA has never won against a Power 5 opponent. The Roadrunners are 0-7 against teams from the five major conferences in college football.
“We’ll go and we’ll compete,” said Wilson, who cut his teeth as an assistant coach at Ole Miss, Tennessee and LSU. “We’ll show up, and we’ll represent Roadrunner Nation. We’ll put our best foot forward (and) we’ll be very competitive. We’ll be prepared. We relish the opportunity.”
Wilson liked what he saw – and heard -- from his players at practice in the past few days. He said workouts were spirited. When the media showed up on Monday morning, players could be heard singing and chanting.
“We came out in today’s practice with enthusiasm,” safety Nate Gaines said. “We just told ourselves, we’re accountable for that (Colorado State) game, and it’s not going to happen again. You know, we got a tough opponent (in Arizona State). A lot of people are counting us out, so, we’re just going to use that to bring more energy.”
Center Juan Perez-Isidoro said coaches did a good job of managing emotions in the wake of Colorado State.
“Coach Wilson is a great guy,” Perez-Isidoro said. “He’s someone to look up to. He proved that (this week), just the way he was so poised, and the way he talked to us. He made us feel confident. He told us not to worry about what other people are saying. Just worry about ourselves.”
UTSA’s preparation for Arizona State wasn’t all about confidence building, with Gaines freely admitting that coaches criticized constructively.
“These coaches are very competitive,” he said. “They showed how competitive they were. They were upset about the loss. We were upset about the loss. In the past, the coaches would say, ‘It’s all right. We’ll get ‘em next week.’ These coaches are like, ‘Nah, we’re supposed to have that game. We’re supposed to win.’ Like, there’s no excuse for it.”
The loss to Colorado State was emotional. The Roadrunners took a four-point lead in the first half. But they couldn’t sustain it. By halftime, they faltered. They started to make mistakes, and they found themselves down by six. In the second half, they were shut out, 3-0.
Jared Johnson, a graduate transfer from Sam Houston State, came on for Dalton Sturm to play quarterback in the third quarter and moved the offense. But two drives under his direction resulted in zero points. Safety Jordan Moore, a graduate transfer from LSU, dropped a ball that likely would have resulted in a pick-six return for a touchdown.
In the fourth quarter, an attacking Colorado State defense turned up the pressure on Sturm, sacking the quarterback four times and stuffing the UTSA offense on minus four net yards. In reaction, Wilson admitted that his offensive front had been out-played. For that, he took some of the blame.
“They’re certainly a quality football team,” Wilson said in a radio interview Saturday afternoon. “I will have to do a better job of getting this team ready to play. I think, at times, we came out a little slow. That falls directly on the guy here, on the head football coach, to get the team prepared to play.”
Wilson’s demeanor in the aftermath of his first loss as a college head coach, his immediate acceptance of responsibility, more than likely had something to do with the high energy at practice leading into Arizona State.
“They’ve made it pretty easy to transition from a loss, to (come) out here to work,” Perez-Isidoro said. “As I said before, there’s high energy, and that’s not just out of nowhere. It’s because of the coaching staff and it’s because of how we took this loss. Like grown men. We came out here with a great attitude ready to work, ready to scheme for this upcoming team.”
Arizona State, receiving votes just outside the Associated Press Top 25, ran a mind-boggling 90 plays last week in a 68-55 victory at home over the Texas Tech Red Raiders. Junior Kalen Ballage scored an NCAA record-tying eight touchdowns.
UTSA accepts the challenge of playing ASU in a game set for national television on ESPN2.
“It’s definitely exciting,” Perez-Isidoro said. “It’s an amazing opportunity to get on that stage and to show the world who we are. What we’re about. I think we are going to do that this Friday. We’re going to show out and show that it doesn’t matter if it’s a Power 5, we’ll line up against any team in the country and play our butts off.”