By Jerry Briggs
Rebounding from an emotionally-draining loss, the UTSA Roadrunners started fast, built an early 14-point lead behind quarterback Dalton Sturm and then held on for a workman-like, 31-17 victory Saturday night over the North Texas Mean Green.
The Roadrunners showed considerable resilience in putting behind them last week’s 52-49, five-overtime setback to the UTEP Miners.
They didn’t look tired at all, coming off a mini-marathon of 4 hours and 21 minutes. Against the Mean Green, they pitched a 14-0 shutout in the first half, hiked the lead to 31-10 in the fourth quarter and finished the month of October with a 3-1 record.
“Our big thing is, (we) don’t flinch,” wide receiver Josh Stewart said. “So, even with the turnaround (from last week), we knew we had a game today that we had to prepare for, and I feel we went about it in the same way we did in any other week.”
Playing in front of a season-low crowd of 19,553, the second-smallest crowd in the six-year history of the program, UTSA won the game statistically in the takeaway column. The Roadrunners forced a season-high four turnovers and didn’t give it up once themselves.
“We did the thing that was most important,” first-year UTSA coach Frank Wilson said. “We took care of the football, and we did not give it to them. I think that was a huge part of the victory today.”
As a result, UTSA (4-4 overall and 3-2 in Conference USA) kept alive its postseason hopes with four games to play, while dealing a blow to North Texas (4-4, 2-2), a rival within the state and in the C-USA’s West Division.
Reminded that UTSA remains in striking distance to reach the six-victory plateau for bowl eligibility, Wilson declined to be drawn into that conversation. Wilson said UTSA won’t look ahead any further than next week’s game at Middle Tennessee State.
“What’s important is Middle Tennessee and our ability to go there and … compete … against a very, very good football team,’ Wilson said. “It’ll require us to be at our very best, and we will be. We’ll prepare accordingly.”
The Roadrunners gained the upper hand early with a pair of Sturm touchdown passes. He hit Kerry Thomas with the first one and then he added another on beautiful throw to Stewart, giving him 15 TD passes on the season.
Sturm has made a habit out of throwing scoring strikes to Thomas and Stewart, who are brothers.
Thomas has snagged six touchdowns this year to set a UTSA single-season record. His 7-yarder in the first quarter also gave him four in the last four games.
Stewart, who beat North Texas star cornerback Eric Jenkins on a fade route in the second quarter for a 21-yarder, has scored three TDs on the year – all of them within the past three weeks. He leads the team with 19 receptions for 440 yards.
“They came out and they did a nice job,” said first-year North Texas coach Seth Littrell. “Their backs (Jarveon Williams and Jalen Rhodes) caused some problems in the run game, and I thought their quarterback managed the game well.
“To me, that’s the most important thing for a quarterback. You have to be able to manage it. We just made more mistakes than they did. They played a more complete game than we did.”
Burned for 24 points in overtime by the Miners last week, UTSA’s defense made a statement by holding the Mean Green scoreless through two quarters, rising up at the end of the half with a goal-line stand.
With the ball at the UTSA 1, North Texas was turned away twice. First, defensive end Ben Kane and safety Michael Egwuagu stopped Mean Green tailback Jeffrey Wilson for no gain.
After a Mean Green timeout, Wilson was denied again on a hit by King Newton, losing possession on a fumble that Egwuagu picked up and returned for 59 yards.
All told, the Roadrunners held the Mean Green to 111 yards in the first half.
For the game, they recovered two fumbles and picked off two passes, one by freshman cornerback Teddrick McGhee and another by safety Chase Dahlquist, matching the number of turnovers forced by the defense all season.
In six previous games, the UTSA special teams had forced five of the opponents’ nine turnovers.
“You have to give them a lot of credit,” Littrell said. “But we had some stupid turnovers.”
Two of them came early in the second half, courtesy of North Texas freshman quarterback Mason Fine.
After Fine broke for an 80-yard scoring run on the opening play of the third quarter, slicing UTSA’s lead to 14-7, the freshman committed an unforced error on the next possession that cost his team a field goal.
Attempting a throw into the flats, the ball slipped out of his hands. It was recovered by UTSA’s Jonathan Tuiolosega at the North Texas 36. Seven plays later, Victor Falcon kicked a 33-yard field goal.
Fine coughed it up again on the next possession, overthrowing a screen pass that was picked off by UTSA safety Chase Dahlquist.
The Roadrunners promptly moved 50 yards on seven plays, with Rhodes running up the middle for a 9-yard TD and a 24-7 lead.
Rhodes added a 19-yard score in the fourth period to make it 31-10 with 9:51 remaining.
North Texas moved 78 yards on 11 plays to score for the final time on a 10-yard TD pass from Fine to Kenny Buyers.
Turning point: On a third-and-goal from the 1, UTSA defensive lineman King Newton made a hit that kept North Texas out of the end zone just before halftime. Newton also knocked the ball loose from Jeffrey Wilson. Safety Michael Egwuagu picked it up and returned it 59 yards before Wilson ran him down on the other end of the field. UTSA went into halftime leading 14-0.
Notebook: Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss both won on Saturday to remain in first and second place, respectively, in the C-USA West division.
With both playing at home, Tech routed Rice, 61-16, and Southern Miss defeated Marshall, 24-14. As a result, Louisiana Tech improved to 6-3 overall and 4-1 in the division, just ahead of Southern Miss (5-3, 3-1).
UTSA (4-4, 3-2) and North Texas (4-4, 2-2) are next … UTEP (2-6, 1-4) and Rice (1-7, 0-5) round out the division …
East division leaders are Western Kentucky (6-3, 4-1), Middle Tennesee (6-2, 3-1), Old Dominion (5-3, 3-1) and Florida International (3-6, 3-2).
Both Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee both won on the road in Florida. Western Kentucky knocked off FAU 52-3 and Middle Tennessee edged FIU 35-42. Old Dominion traveled to El Paso and beat UTEP 42-35 …
The C-USA championship game, played annually since 2005, has featured at least one team with two conference losses seven times in the past 11 seasons. But a two-loss team hasn’t made it since 2011, when Southern Miss came into the title game with a 6-2 record and beat Houston to win the crown.
In a four-year period starting in 2012, seven of the eight teams in the championship game won their divisions with 7-1 records and the other (Western Kentucky, last year) qualified at 8-0 …
With one home game left on the schedule, UTSA is drawing an average of 22,884 fans per game in its sixth season as a program. The Roadrunners averaged an NCAA start-up record 35,521 in their first year in 2011. Attendance has declined gradually since then, falling to an average of 23,008 last year.
Coming up: UTSA will play the first of three-straight games on the road when they travel to Murfreesboro, Tenn., to take on Middle Tennessee next week. Kickoff is at 1:30 p.m. Saturday.