By Jerry Briggs
More than a few explanations come to mind when you talk about the rise of the UTSA Roadrunners into contention for the Conference USA West division title.
First, you think about an opportunistic defense that has forced four turnovers in each of the last two games.
You also need to consider a fast-improving rushing attack that is averaging 237.6 yards during a four-wins in five-game streak.
Finally, players say you need to discuss the overall impact of first-year coach Frank Wilson.
“We’d follow coach Wilson to the edge of a cliff,” safety Nate Gaines said.
More than anything, the determined efforts of the coaches and players are viewed as most responsible for the Roadrunners reaching the point that they can become bowl eligible and tie for first place in the C-USA West with a victory at Louisiana Tech on Saturday.
At the same time, UTSA players would also concede that a little luck has helped them along the way, and some of it has been absolutely heartbreaking.
Last weekend, during UTSA’s stunning 45-25 victory at Middle Tennessee State, Blue Raiders sophomore quarterback sensation Brent Stockstill was slammed to the turf on a second-quarter sack.
He was smacked on a clean hit by hard-charging UTSA defensive tackle Baylen Baker and fell awkwardly on his right shoulder.
Stockstill stayed in the game for a few more plays, completing a 10-yard pass and then throwing incomplete on fourth down.
But that was it for the one of the nation’s highest rated quarterbacks, headed to the sidelines with a broken collarbone, his team down 14-7. He was done for the day.
In response, UTSA drove the length of the field on the next drive, with another key play looming.
On second down from the Middle Tennessee 10, UTSA junior quarterback Dalton Sturm dashed to his left, sped around the corner and picked up steam.
In stepped Middle Tennessee safety Alex Dale, who took the brunt of violent collision at the 2. One snap later, Jarveon Williams scored on a short run for a 21-7 lead.
Miraculously, both Sturm and Dale would stay in the game. On the UTSA sidelines, teammates cheered Sturm, the Roadrunners’ offensive catalyst.
“Man, I think Dalton is one of a kind,” safety Michael Egwuagu said. “That’s my guy. He is hard-nosed.”
Gaines also said Sturm’s play was a momentum push for a UTSA team on its way to a victory that would keep its postseason hopes alive.
But considering everything, Gaines said that UTSA was also fortunate. What if Sturm went down after the collision and didn’t get up? What if Stockstill hadn’t been so seriously hurt and was able to continue? What then?
“Any time your starting quarterback goes down, it just changes the whole dynamic of the offense, even the team,” Gaines said.
In each of the past two seasons, UTSA has lost quarterbacks to injuries.
Three of them -- Tucker Carter, Blake Bogenschutz and Austin Robinson – went down in 2014 to derail a year in which UTSA had fielded 37 seniors.
Last season, Bogenschutz was hurt at UTEP in Game 5. Because of the injury and other problems with the team that snowballed, it was Larry Coker’s last year as coach.
Coker’s exit was complex. But in a lot of ways, UTSA’s 7-17 record over the past two years was directly related to quarterbacks that couldn’t stay healthy.
Bogenschutz, who suffered from concussion-like symptoms in the wake of the hit at UTEP, is no longer playing football.
All of it makes you wonder about last week and how a season has been affected.
Namely, is UTSA (5-4, 4-2) really a solid contender in the West? Is Louisiana Tech (7-3, 5-1) too tough to handle?
Will Middle Tennessee (6-3, 3-2) be the same in the East without Stockstill, who is lost for the season?
“You know, it’s crazy seeing that happen to another team,” Gaines said. “I hope (Stockstill) makes a full recovery.”
Gaines is one UTSA’s most cerebral players. He is one who will look at an issue from all angles before he makes an assessment.
Yes, UTSA is fortunate in a way for getting out of Tennessee with the major impact players healthy enough to go this week against the powerful Bulldogs.
But Gaines also said you have to give the Roadrunners credit for making their own luck.
“It seems that when these coaches came in, it was like, (good) fortune just came to this program,” Gaines said. “I think it was more (about) them embedding it in our heads, that we will be successful. A lot of guys are on board with that.”