By Jerry Briggs
After the past two games, the UTSA Roadrunners have sat grim-faced in the locker room, knowing that they failed to capitalize on one winning opportunity, followed by another.
Playing on the road at Colorado State, they engaged in a one-possession struggle for more than three quarters, only to lose by nine points. Against the high-powered Arizona State Sun Devils, they built a 16-point lead in the third quarter to send a home crowd into a tizzy, and then lost by four.
In both games, the empty feeling that comes with allowing victory to slip away returned to haunt veteran players, who still carry mental scars from back-to-back losing seasons.
Despite that painful history, junior quarterback Dalton Sturm said this year’s team hasn’t lost its confidence, nor has it lost sight of a dream scenario for the season. Sturm said he still thinks UTSA can win the Conference USA championship.
“Oh, 100 percent,” he said.
With the Roadrunners (1-2) scheduled to open C-USA play on the road Saturday against the Old Dominion Monarchs (1-2), Sturm said believing in the dream is crucial. “That’s not just in football, either,” Sturm said. “It’s in whatever you’re doing. Like coach tells us, if you’re going to do something, do it 100 percent. Don’t do it half way.”
Sturm, playing under an energetic, first-year coaching staff directed by Frank Wilson, has emerged as UTSA’s foremost reason to believe, at the moment.
Ranked fifth in the C-USA in quarterback rating (151.3) and sixth in passing yards (679), he has also dazzled fans with two long touchdown runs in the Alamodome.
He threw for three TDs and ran for a 34-yarder last Friday as UTSA built a 28-12 lead on Arizona State in the third quarter.
Unfortunately for the Roadrunners, the Sun Devils stormed from behind with 20 straight points to seize a 32-28 victory, denying UTSA its historic first win over a Power 5 opponent.
“Coming into this season, we had high expectations,” Sturm said. “A 1-2 record (before) conference is not what we expected. But we’ll live with it. There’s a lot of great things that have happened that we can take away from the two losses.
“I’m not saying the (losses) set well (with the players and coaches) or, anything like that, but there’s definitely some lessons that we’ve learned.
Wilson said the victories will come as long as the players continue to work and prepare.
“We’re a quality football team,” he said. “We’ve done some good things. We’ve shown flashes. We just have to put it together. We felt the two games we lost -- to two very quality teams -- we were in (both games) and we had opportunities. We’d like to be the team to finish on top in the future.”
Defensively, UTSA has played well enough to be 3-0. The Roadrunners made nine straight stops without giving up a point in a 26-13, season-opening victory over FCS Alabama State. They held Colorado State to 61 yards and three points in the second half of a 23-14 loss at Fort Collins.
Midway through the third quarter last week, the defense had held an Arizona State team coming off a 68-point performance to 12. If the Sun Devils didn’t grind out four clutch scoring drives in their last five possessions on UTSA’s home field, the Roadrunners would have claimed the most significant victory in school history.
“No doubt about it,” UTSA senior running back Jarveon Williams said. “We’re a good team. We’re going to put games together and finish, and we’re going to get this thing rolling.”
The absence of an effective rushing attack with the running backs has become the chief culprit in the two losses. Sturm has been able to make plays in freelance situations. But the UTSA backs, out of sync with a struggling offensive line, haven’t been able to move the chains enough to keep opposing defenses honest.
Part of the issue is related to injuries. Williams, a 1,042-yard rusher a year ago, has been slowed with an ankle sprain. Jalen Rhodes, the team’s No. 2 back, didn’t play in the second half against Arizona State. Both Halen Steward and Corbin White haven’t played at all since the opener, and now Steward – the team’s best blocking back -- is lost for the season.
A senior from Judson, Williams has been returning to form slowly. He didn’t start in either of the past two games and has failed to break off one of his signature long runs from scrimmage. Nevertheless, he has produced in big plays in both losses as a receiver. Against Colorado State, he caught a 28-yard pass in traffic to set up a touchdown.
He followed with five catches for a team-high 81 yards against Arizona State, including a 48-yarder just after halftime that set up another score.
Speaking after practice earlier this week, Williams said he isn’t frustrated at being held to 38 yards rushing in his first three games. He said “it’s just part of the game.” Now, he said he feels good and is “ready to get back in the flow of things.” By the way, Williams will take the receiving yards, if it leads to success for the team.
“It just kind of comes with whatever the defense gives you,” Williams said. “You got to take it. We weren’t really moving the ball rushing-wise (against Arizona State). But we were able to spread it out and pass it. It was working for us.”
Last year, the Roadrunners dropped a game in the dome to the Monarchs, who rallied from a 14-3 deficit after one quarter to win 36-31. UTSA had the ball at the Old Dominion 13-yard line on the last play and, under Sturm’s direction, couldn’t get it in the end zone. The loss sent UTSA to 1-8 on the season, on the way to a 3-9 finish under former coach Larry Coker.
Set to face the same skill players that beat them in San Antonio a year ago, the Roadrunners will try to win the rematch in the Monarchs’ homecoming game at Ballard Stadium in Norfolk, Virginia.
Waiting to greet the Roadrunners will be quarterback David Washington, who burned them for 378 yards and two TDs passing last year. Also providing a challenge will be running back Ray Lawry and two of the best receivers in the conference, Jonathan Duhart and Zach Pascal.
Eighth-year ODU coach Bobby Wilder said the biggest change in UTSA from last year, other than the coaching staff, can be traced to the improvement of Sturm. Wilder pointed out that Sturm accounts for 75 percent of UTSA’s offense between his passing and rushing.
“It would be a lot more but the (yardage on) sacks (is) deducted,” the coach said. “He’s really averaging 60 yards a game when he runs the ball from the line of scrimmage, but the sacks and negative plays take it back. He’s really the biggest difference, to me.”
Last year, in his seven starts to close the season, Sturm hit 54.8 percent of his passes and posted a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 13-7. In three starts this year, in a more pro-style offense headed by coordinator Frank Scelfo, he’s hitting 63.5 percent with a 7-2 TD to INT ratio.
“They look like they play with a lot more energy than they did (last year),” Wilder said. “Frank Wilson is a good football coach. But I always think the quarterback makes the difference, because he brings the energy (to) everybody within the organization.”
The game against the Monarchs is pivotal for the Roadrunners on a number of levels.
First, can they win the conference opener? They’re 2-1 in C-USA openers to date, all on the road, including a 32-13 win at UTEP in 2013, when they finished 7-5 overall and 6-2 conference, a game out of first in the West Division.
Second, can they beat ODU if the game gets close? UTSA went 3-1 in games decided by single-digit scoring margins in 2013, their last winning season. Since then, they have fallen to 4-9 in games decided by fewer than 10 points, including the recent losses to Colorado State and Arizona State.
Finally, after UTSA showed significant improvement from Week 2 to Week 3, is it premature to discuss the possibility of winning at ODU in Week 4, getting on a streak and then earning a shot at the C-USA title? At least, that’s the dream.
“I think we’re a different team than last year,” Sturm said. “We have jelled so much better than last year. We believe in one another 100 percent.”