By Jerry Briggs
Putting back-to-back losing seasons behind them, the UTSA Roadrunners have re-discovered the joy of winning football games under first-year coach Frank Wilson.
The Roadrunners continued to chart a course for a remarkable turnaround, winning for the fourth time in five outings on Saturday with a stunning 45-25 road victory in Conference USA against the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders.
Wilson picked up the win on his 43rd birthday.
“I’m so proud of this team and this coaching staff for their preparation … and the way that we were able to play today,” the coach told the UTSA radio broadcast. “Just extremely proud, to be able to go on the road and beat a quality football team ... We played a really good game today.”
As a result, UTSA (5-4, 4-2 C-USA) will enter the stretch drive of its sixth season as a program needing only one victory in its last three games to become bowl eligible.
In delivering a crushing blow to C-USA East Division title contender Middle Tennessee (6-3, 3-2), the Roadrunners also kept alive their hopes of winning the West.
“We’re growing up,” said Wilson, who took over a program that won only seven games over the past two years combined. “We’re taking the steps in the right direction.”
UTSA will face Louisiana Tech (7-3, 5-1) in a key C-USA West matchup on the road next week, followed by a non-conference test at nationally-ranked Texas A&M on Nov. 19.
The Roadrunners close the regular season at home on Nov. 26 against the Charlotte 49ers, a team from the C-USA East.
Wilson talked openly about what can be achieved in coming weeks.
“Finally, right now, we can take view of things we’ve talked about, our long-term goals,” Wilson said. “And that is to compete for a conference championship and compete for a bowl game, because it’s realistic now, with two conference games remaining.”
Riding a strong running game, UTSA built a surprising 14-7 lead after the first quarter, sending an early message to a team that was favored by 19 points.
The misfortune continued for the Blue Raiders early in the second period when star quarterback Brent Stockstill was knocked out of the game with an injury.
Stockstill, the leader of an offense ranked seventh in the nation, went down hard on his right shoulder on a sack by UTSA defensive tackle Baylen Baker.
The left-handed quarterback promptly dusted himself off and completed a 10-yard throw to Ty Lee that carried to the UTSA 30-yard line.
But on fourth down, he fired incomplete.
It was the last throw of the day for Stockstill, who entered the day with 2,689 yards and 26 touchdowns passing.
Wilson said the exit of the Middle Tennessee sophomore, the son of Blue Raiders coach Rick Stockstill, changed the complexion of the game.
“He makes that offense go,” the coach said.
Seizing momentum, the Roadrunners outscored the Blue Raiders 14-3 to the end of the half and ducked into the locker room with a 28-10 lead at intermission.
Middle Tennessee never climbed to any closer than 11 points the rest of the way, as UTSA kept rolling to its most points ever in a road game.
“We have to give them credit,” Rick Stockstill said. “They whooped us today. In the first half, they scored on the first four out of five possessions. We couldn’t stop them.”
Meanwhile, the UTSA defense came alive to force four turnovers for the second straight week.
Jordan Moore, Devron Davis and Michael Egwuagu all picked off passes thrown by Middle Tennessee freshman quarterback John Urzua.
Urzua also fumbled, a loose ball that was recovered by UTSA linebacker La’Kel Bass.
“Coach (Jason) Rollins was hard on us this week, getting on the linebackers, getting on the safeties, talking about, ‘We need to get more takeaways, more turnovers,’ “Egwuagu said. “That was just an emphasis that we wanted to carry over from last game. I think we sort of did that today.”
Since Oct. 1, the Roadrunners have posted a 4-1 record, playing well during that stretch in all phases -- offense, defense and special teams.
The only blemish on the record came two weeks ago at home in the Alamodome in a 52-49, five-overtime loss to UTEP.
Last week, UTSA bounced back and spanked North Texas 31-17 at home, but few expected a victory on the road this week against a Middle Tennessee team that had a C-USA East title in its sights.
But in the first game on the schedule in November, the Roadrunners’ offensive line did its part, producing ample running space for tailbacks Jarveon Williams and Jalen Rhodes.
For the game, UTSA produced 270 yards and five touchdowns rushing.
Leading the way was Williams, who rushed for a school-record tying three touchdowns and 109 yards.
“We’re a physical football team,” said Williams, who has eclipsed 100 yards three times in the past five games. “That’s something we preach, day in and day out. It doesn’t just happen on Saturdays. We do it all week in practice. I’m not really surprised about the offensive line. It’s a good group of guys.”
Rhodes, the other half of UTSA’s explosive tailback tandem, produced 81 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries.
He romped for a 26-yard TD in the first quarter, exploding through the line and then juking a defender in the secondary.
“We had holes to run through all day,” said Rhodes, who has rushed for a team-leading eight TDs this season, including four in the past three games.
UTSA quarterback Dalton Sturm enjoyed only an average day throwing the ball, hitting Josh Stewart for a touchdown but also throwing an interception. He was 9 of 19 passes for 109 yards.
But Sturm was effective in managing an offense that converted 11 of 19 third-down opportunities. He also ran the ball well, carrying eight times for 49 yards.
His 1-yard sneak at the end of the third quarter lifted UTSA to a 42-17 lead.
The victory was especially sweet for UTSA veteran players who suffered the past few years through long losing spells marked by injuries to key players.
In 2014, for instance, UTSA lost three scholarship quarterbacks to injuries. Last year, quarterback Blake Bogenschutz went down with a concussion at UTEP. It was an injury that forced him to give up football in the offseason.
Beset with inconsistency at the quarterback position, the Roadrunners muddled through with a combined 7-17 record over the past two years, including 3-9 last year.
Middle Tennessee ended the season for UTSA last year by winning 42-7 in San Antonio. Williams, from Judson High School, said players believe in themselves this year.
“We believe in everyone in this locker room,” he said. “Today, we showed the world what we can do.”
Turning point: Middle Tennessee suffered two key injuries in the second quarter. Both quarterback Brent Stockstill and offensive tackle Carlos Johnson left the game and did not return.
Stockstill’s replacement, John Urzua, struggled the rest of the way. UTSA picked off Urzua three times and forced him to fumble.
Also struggling was the Middle Tennessee running game. Without Johnson, the Blue Raiders managed only 110 yards rushing against UTSA.
Notebook: In a battle between C-USA West foes, Carlos Henderson scored five touchdowns to lead Louisiana Tech to a 45-24 road victory over North Texas in Denton.
It was the sixth-straight win for the division-leading Bulldogs.
Louisiana Tech (7-3, 5-1) leads the West standings, followed by UTSA (5-4, 4-2), Southern Miss (5-4, 3-2), North Texas (4-5, 2-3), UTEP (3-6, 1-4) and Rice (1-8, 0-6).
Contenders in the East include Western Kentucky (7-3, 5-1), Old Dominion (6-3, 4-1), Charlotte (4-5, 3-2) and Middle Tennessee (6-3, 3-2). Others are FIU (3-7, 3-3), Marshall (2-7, 1-4) and FAU (2-7, 1-4).
Coming up: Kickoff between UTSA and Louisiana Tech is set for 2:30 p.m. next Saturday in Ruston, La.