By Jerry Briggs
Buoyed by a pair of Dalton Sturm touchdown passes to Josh Stewart in the first half, the UTSA Roadrunners held on at the end Saturday night for a dramatic 14-13 victory over the Rice Owls in Houston.
Rice, trailing by the eventual final score, had two chances to take the lead in the final five minutes.
But on one drive, the Owls marched 70 yards and then misfired on a 42-yard field goal. On the other, Rice hit two quick passes and reached the UTSA 27, only to have time expire.
“Credit to those guys at Rice,” Stewart told the team’s radio broadcast. “They’re a great football team. It was a hard-fought game. I’m just happy we were able to come away with the win.”
Under pressure from an aggressive Rice pass rush, Sturm hit 17 of 25 passes for 209 yards.
He threw TD passes covering 75 and 28 yards to Stewart as the Roadrunners (3-3 overall, 2-1 in Conference USA) won their first game on the road under new coach Frank Wilson.
The victory also carried significance because UTSA beat the winless Owls (0-6, 0-4) for the second time in two years and for the first time in history at Rice Stadium.
“We’re certainly proud of our team for finding a way to claim victory in such a hostile environment,” Wilson said. “We knew it would be one hell of a football game. Hats off to Rice University and their preparation. We’re very excited about the opportunity to go home with the victory.”
After last week’s 55-32 win at home over Southern Miss, UTSA entered Rice Stadium coming off perhaps its best performance in six years as a program.
The victory over Rice wasn’t nearly as artistic. But it did lift UTSA into a four-way tie atop the C-USA West Division standings with Southern Miss, Louisiana Tech and North Texas heading into next week’s home game against UTEP.
The Owls took an early lead when they drove the field on the opening possession and scored on a 13-yard scramble by quarterback Tyler Stehling.
On a play that would loom large for the rest of the evening, Haden Tobola’s extra-point try was no good, glancing off an upright and leaving Rice with only a 6-0 lead.
Fired up, the Rice defense stopped UTSA on a three-and-out on the ensuing possession. But once the Roadrunners got the ball again, they would not be denied.
Stewart ran a pick play off of teammate Peyton Hall, crossed over the middle and caught a laser from Sturm.
“Dalton did put the ball on the money,” Stewart said. “But it was also an excellent job by Peyton Hall. He set a perfect pick. He ran a corner route. I went right off his butt, and it freed me up to be wide open.”
Early in the second quarter, UTSA capitalized on a Rice special teams error. The Owls failed to field a punt, and it was recovered by JaColbie Butler.
Officials reviewed the play to see if it hit a UTSA player first, but the Roadrunners were awarded the ball. On the next play, UTSA cashed it in with a touchdown.
Sturm, double-clutching in the pocket, hit Stewart on a fade route behind the defense. Stewart made an over-the-shoulder catch for his 28-yarder and his second TD of the season.
In the post-game interviews, Sturm traced UTSA’s ability to hit so many big plays over the past two weeks to preparation in the film room.
“Coaches are putting us in great positions to succeed,” Sturm said. “We game-plan really well. Guys are going in and studying, just getting more educated on our opponent. So whenever we come out, we know what they’re going to be in. We’re not surprised on stuff, and we just go out there and execute.”
With the Owls trailing 14-6 at the half, their defense rose to the challenge. A UTSA offense that produced a school-record 532 yards of offense last week was held to 334 by the Owls, including only 110 after intermission.
Rice, meanwhile, drove 84 yards on 9 plays in the third quarter. Samuel Stewart scored on a 13-yard pass from Stehling with 7:49 remaining to pull the Owls within 14-13.
In the fourth quarter, the Roadrunners tried to finish off the game with a 14-play drive that carried deep into the Owls’ red zone. But Rice stopped UTSA’s Jalen Rhodes for no gain on third-and-goal at the 2.
On the next play, UTSA elected to go for the touchdown rather than take a field goal for a four-point lead.
With Rhodes running to the outside, Rice stuffed the play for a three-yard loss, giving the ball to the Owls with five minutes remaining, and needing only a field goal to take the lead.
Asked why he went for the touchdown at that point, Wilson told reporters later, “I wanted to put us in position to win the football game. We were trying to put the game away. I trust our team. I have faith in them.
“We fell a little short. I was confident we could score and I was confident our defense would not let them score.”
Later, the Owls marched down the field. As the drive stalled out, Tobola lined up what could have been the go-ahead field goal, but he missed from 42 yards, just wide to the right.
On Rice’s last possession, Stehling struck quickly, firing 17 yards to Kylen Granson and then hitting James Mayden for 19, carrying down to the UTSA 27.
But after the Owls ran to the line of scrimmage and spiked the ball on the next play, the last second ticked off the clock, giving the Roadrunners the victory.
“Hats off to Rice,” said UTSA running back Jarveon Williams, who moved past David Glasco II into the top spot as the school’s all-time leading rusher. “They’re really a decent team. I know their record doesn’t reflect their success. But they’re a really good team.
“They came off a bye week, so they had an extra week to prepare for us,” he added. “They did a really good job. Like I say, we just found a way. Our goal is to score one more point than the other team, and today we did that.”
Turning point: With Rice leading by six, Sturm hit Stewart over the middle for a 75-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter to give UTSA a 7-6 lead. The play seemed to deflate the Owls, who couldn’t get anything going the rest of the half. The Roadrunners eventually took a 14-6 lead into intermission.
Notes: Williams finished with 40 yards rushing on 13 carries to give him 1,786 yards on 340 carries in his career. Glasco had 1,752 yards on 400 carries from 2011-14.
Williams entered the Rice game needing only six yards to tie the record.
Jalen Rhodes, who produced a career-high 165 yards rushing last week against Southern Miss, ran for 79 on 18 carries.
Stewart’s 75-yard reception from Sturm was the third-longest pass play in program history. It marked the second time in as many weeks that the two hooked up for a long play. Stewart caught one last week for 77 yards, the second-longest pass play in school history.
UTSA’s defense held Rice to 351 yards and to only two touchdowns. Standouts included linebackers La’Kel Bass with 12 tackles and Josiah Tauaefa with 10, including a sack, 1.5 tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries.
Safeties Nate Gaines and Michael Egwuagu also had eight tackles apiece. Both forced a fumble and Egwuagu had two passes broken up.
With the victory, UTSA improved to 1-2 on the road this season after earlier losses at Colorado State and Old Dominion.
UTSA also improved to 1-2 on the season in games decided by single digits. UTSA lost by nine points on the road at Colorado State and by four points at home to Arizona.
Coming up: The Roadrunners host the UTEP Miners (1-5, 0-3) next week. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. Saturday at the Alamodome. The game will be televised on KMYS. UTSA has posted a 2-1 record at home.