By Jerry Briggs
The UTSA Roadrunners kicked off Saturday’s game at Louisiana Tech with high hopes, knowing that a victory would elevate them to bowl eligibility for the first time in the six-year history of the program.
Additionally, they also knew that a win would lift them into a tie for first place in the Conference USA West division.
Bulldogs star Carlos Henderson wasted little time in spoiling their plans.
Henderson scored the first of his three touchdowns on the afternoon by returning the opening kick 90 yards for a score, setting the tone for an easy 63-35 decision over the Roadrunners.
Quarterback Ryan Higgins also played a major role, throwing four touchdown passes, as Louisiana Tech (8-3, 6-1) clinched the C-USA West title and a spot in the conference championship game.
Eliminated from the championship picture, the Roadrunners (5-5, 4-3) can nevertheless still qualify for a bowl if they can win either of their last two games.
UTSA plays at nationally-ranked Texas A&M (7-3) of the Southeastern Conference next week before they close the regular season at home, on Nov. 26, against the C-USA's Charlotte 49ers.
A concern moving forward is the health of UTSA running back Jalen Rhodes, who sat out the second half after suffering an injury.
“We’ve got to get ourselves healthy,” UTSA coach Frank Wilson told the team’s radio broadcast. “We need to get back to campus, review this film and prepare for a very good Texas A&M opponent.”
Down by seven after Henderson ignited emotions in a homecoming crowd of 23,012 at Joe Ailett Stadium, the Roadrunners answered to tie the game on the ensuing possession.
They negotiated a 13-play, 87-yard scoring drive.
It was the best drive of the day for UTSA, highlighted by an 18-yard completion from quarterback Dalton Sturm to Josh Stewart to convert a third-and-10 situation, a 22-yard scramble by Sturm and an 11-yard pass to Kerry Thomas Jr.
With first down at the Louisiana Tech 11, UTSA ran three plays, with Jarveon Williams pushing in from the 1 to tie it 7-7.
“We started slow from a special teams standpoint,” Wilson said. “They were able to bring one back to the house. We responded (with the touchdown) and then we sputtered, offensively and defensively, throughout the game.
“(We were) never consistent enough,” the coach added. “The admirable thing is that our kids continued to compete. We fought all the way until the very end. Unfortunately, today we were not good enough.”
With the game tied in the first quarter, Louisiana Tech’s defense stepped up the intensity, holding UTSA to three straight three-and-out possessions.
Highlighting the three defensive stands, the Bulldogs notched two sacks against UTSA quarterback Dalton Sturm on one of the possessions and one on another.
The key plays came against a UTSA offensive line that didn’t allow any sacks in last week’s 45-25 victory at Middle Tennessee State.
The explosive Louisiana Tech offense, meanwhile, took advantage by scoring touchdowns on four straight possessions for a 35-7 lead.
The Bulldogs kept pouring it on after intermission, racing to leads of 28 points three more times, including the final score when they punched it in with five seconds remaining on a one-yard sneak.
After the game, Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz told the Monroe News-Star that fans urged him in September to make changes on his staff after the team’s 1-3 start.
“I got emails that I needed to fire staff members, you know what I mean,” Holtz said
But Holtz said his plan remained the same after a 38-34 loss at Middle Tennessee State on Sept. 24 dropped his team to 1-3 on the season and to 0-1 in the conference.
“Nobody flinched,” Holtz said. “Nobody panicked. We didn’t reinvent the wheel. We didn’t change our offense.”
UTSA saved some face in the fourth quarter with a spirited showing by backup quarterback Jared Johnson, the senior transfer from Sam Houston State.
Johnson threw a pair of 4-yard touchdown passes, one to Thomas and the other to Marquez McNair.
Senior safety Michael Egwuagu also made it interesting by recovering a blocked field goal try and returning it 82 yards for a TD.
Kevin Strong set the play in motion when he reached up and swatted down a low kick from Jonathan Barnes.
Egwuagu picked it up, burst around a mass of Tech players and raced the rest of the way untouched for the third touchdown of his career.
“I think it’s good whenever you can score on defense,” Egwuagu said. “But, no matter what, there’s no moral victories. There’s no singular victories, as well. We’re a team. We weren’t good enough today, and it’s a bitter feeling.”
Louisiana Tech controlled the game with its speed and physical play, outgaining UTSA 473-310 in total offense.
“They’re really good,” UTSA junior Marcus Davenport said. “They really got us. They game-planned us and we didn’t have much of an answer for it.”
Henderson entered the game with 17 touchdowns and added three more with the 90-yard return, a 6-yard pass reception and a 14-yard run on a reverse – all before halftime.
Higgins hit 17 of 26 passes for 293 yards and four touchdowns, without an interception. He also produced TD throws to Alfred Smith for 68 yards, Trent Taylor (for 5 yards) and Marlon Watts (50).
Sturm suffered through a tough afternoon, failing to throw for a TD for only the second time all season and for the first time since Sept. 24 at Old Dominion.
He started fast, completing three for three passes for 40 yards on the opening drive. After that, the junior from Goliad was 9 for 19 for 60 yards.
Williams finished with 95 yards and two short touchdown runs on 18 carries. Rhodes, who was hit hard near the goal line at the end of the first half, produced only 29 yards on nine tries.
His return to health could be key to UTSA’s bowl chances.
During the team’s recent streak of four wins in its last five games, Rhodes averaged 96.6 yards per game and 6.5 per carry.
Turning point: Trailing by 21 points late in the second quarter, UTSA had pushed on a drive into Louisiana Tech territory. Facing a fourth-and-7 at the Louisiana Tech 27, the Roadrunners attempted their second trick play of the drive.
UTSA set up for an apparent field goal and snapped it to Yannis Routsas, who pitched to kicker Victor Falcon. Falcon was stuffed by on a 7-yard loss by Tech’s Secdrick Cooper, and the ball went over on downs to the Bulldogs.
Louisiana Tech promptly capitalized, moving 66 yards on 6 plays to score and take a 35-7 lead. Henderson did the honors, running a reverse to the left and crashing through a tackle at the goal line for his third TD of the day and his 20th of the season.
Notebook: Ole Miss rallied in the fourth quarter to knock off eighth-ranked Texas A&M, 29-28, Saturday night in College Station. Winners of their first six games, the Aggies (7-3, 4-3 in the SEC) have lost two in a row and three of their last four.
UTSA linebacker Josiah Tauaefa was flagged in the third quarter for a targeting call against Louisiana Tech receiver Trent Taylor. By rule, Tauaefa was ejected from the game and is expected also to serve a suspension for the first half of the Texas A&M game.
It was the third targeting call in the last three games for the Roadrunners, with the others coming against Davenport (in the North Texas game) and Teddrick McGhee (against Middle Tennessee).
Louisiana Tech’s point total is the second most in UTSA’s six-year history. Oklahoma State set the record last year in a 69-13 victory in Stillwater.
With the victory, the Bulldogs improved to 4-1 against the Roadrunners, including 3-0 at home in Ruston, Louisiana.
Coming up: UTSA plays at Texas A&M next week in College Station. Kickoff is at 11 a.m. Saturday at Kyle Field. The regular-season finale against Charlotte is set for a 6 p.m. start on Nov. 26 at the Alamodome.