By Jerry Briggs
The underdog UTSA Roadrunners walked into cavernous Kyle Field on Saturday afternoon, knowing that they would need to make the best of a difficult situation against a nationally-ranked, Power 5-conference opponent.
Injured running back Jalen Rhodes, the Roadrunners’ leading rusher, was held out of UTSA’s historic first meeting against the Texas A&M Aggies.
On top of that, the offensive line was missing two starters.
Faced with all that adversity, UTSA rallied behind a feisty defense and backup quarterback Jared Johnson, staying close until the 25th-ranked Aggies scored on a long run in the third quarter to down Roadrunners, 23-10.
UTSA entered the game as 27-point underdogs.
“Very proud of the job that our team did today,” Roadrunners coach Frank Wilson told the team’s radio broadcast. “We talked about self-reflecting on the things that we needed to do to allow us to be at our very best. I thought we did a very good job of focusing on those things.”
Wilson said he was most proud of the team’s competitive fire.
“They competed from the start of the whistle until the end,” he said. “To come into this venue and play the No. 25 team in the country off their feet and to make ‘em take it … Unfortunately, our best wasn’t good enough today.
“There’s still a lot of work out there for us to do. But I’m certainly proud of the effort and the fight and grit that this team showed.”
In turning back UTSA, the Aggies (8-3) surged into a 23-7 lead when running back Trayveon Williams raced for a 47-yard TD with 8:32 left in the third period.
The Roadrunners (5-6) pushed into A&M territory twice more down the stretch, but they came out of those opportunities with only a field goal, leaving them one victory shy of bowl eligibility heading into the final week of the regular season.
UTSA will shoot for a win and perhaps its first trip to a bowl game next week when it hosts the Charlotte 49ers.
“We did some good things today,” Johnson said. “But we also got some things to fix. We obviously have a big game ahead of us next week. Starting tomorrow, we start preparing, and we’ll be excited about that opportunity.”
From the start, few people outside the UTSA locker room expected much out of the Roadrunners.
After all, the Aggies hadn’t lost at home against an unranked, nonconference opponent in eight years, since the Miami Hurricanes won 41-23 at Kyle Field in 2008.
In addition, the Roadrunners had never beaten a team from a Power 5 conference and, only a week ago, they were battered 63-35 in a Conference USA battle at Louisiana Tech.
The Aggies of the Southeastern Conference came in with problems of their own.
Saddled with a two-game losing streak, they were playing without their leader, quarterback Trevor Knight, out for the season with a shoulder injury.
But behind reserve Jake Hubenak, they opened with a flourish.
The Aggies drove 83 yards for a touchdown on their first possession and then added the first of three field goals from Daniel LaCamera to lead 10-0 after the first quarter.
As UTSA’s offense sputtered, generating only 27 yards on its first three possessions, Wilson called for Johnson to replace Dalton Sturm.
Johnson immediately engineered a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to pull UTSA within 10-7 early in the second quarter.
Receiver Josh Stewart did the honors, scoring with a highlight-reel TD catch off a 10-yard pass from Johnson.
Initially, a television announcer called it incomplete, until a referee threw up two hands, signaling touchdown.
Replays clearly showed that Stewart went high, caught it with one hand and then cradled it as he came down in bounds.
“Phenomenal football catch,” Wilson said. “(Jared) put it in the only place it could be, high and outside. (Stewart’s) range allowed him to make a spectacular, one-handed catch. Then, even with more athleticism, he kept his feet in bounds for the touchdown.”
Stewart, who grew up close to Kyle Field in College Station, credited his quarterback for making the play.
“It was a fade route,” said Stewart, who at 6-feet-4 had a significant size advantage on the cornerback. “I did a bad job of getting wide (on the route) but he threw a perfect ball. I just went up and tried to make a play … credit Jared for making a great throw.”
The play seemed to wake up the Aggies, who responded with two more drives and two more LaCamera field goals before halftime for a 16-7 lead.
In the third quarter, UTSA made it interesting when Johnson guided the Roadrunners on another drive into Aggies territory.
But A&M’s defense made a fourth-down stop at its own 22, setting up an offensive possession that ultimately won the game for the Aggies.
On third down, Hubenak passed to receiver Ricky Seals-Jones, who broke through two defenders and gained 37 yards to midfield. Running back Trayveon Williams, on the next play, burst off the right side for a 47-yard touchdown dash.
It was a big play that helped push the Aggies into next Thursday’s battle against the LSU Tigers with some much-needed momentum. A&M coach Kevin Sumlin applauded his players for their effort.
“A lot of guys that had not played or were special teams players played critical snaps for us today,” Sumlin said. “Moving some guys around and finishing the game and getting a win was big.
“Coming back in here on a short week, with some energy and some confidence, was really what we wanted to get done today. I thought for the most part, that’s what we did.”
Hubenak finished with 248 yards passing, including a 16-yard TD throw to Josh Reynolds.
On the other side of the ball, A&M defensive end Myles Garrett, a third-team, All-American last year, dominated the line of scrimmage with 4.5 sacks.
In all, the Aggies sacked Roadrunners quarterbacks six times. Wilson said he pulled Sturm late in the first quarter because of inconsistency.
“We started sputtering at times and (were) looking for something to jump-start us,” UTSA’s first-year coach said. “We were a little inconsistent at the quarterback position. We were looking for some consistency. (We were) hoping to give Dalton a sigh of relief … and then get him back in the game.
“(But) Jared played well and didn’t give us a reason to take him out of the game. So, we stayed with him the remainder of the game, and I thought he played well.”
Sturm, who has started all 11 games this year for the Roadrunners, hit 3 of 7 passes for 18 yards. Johnson relieved and connected on 15 of 24 for 186 yards.
Brothers Stewart and Kerry Thomas, Jr., who both played high school ball at A&M Consolidated in College Station, enjoyed a successful homecoming. Between them, the made 10 catches for 137 yards.
Stewart had six of the catches for a team-high 75 yards.
A major problem for UTSA was the running game. The Roadrunners were held to 48 yards on 34 carries. The rushing total includes yardage lost on sacks.
Turning point: Texas A&M’s defensive front sparked a momentum-changing sequence in the third quarter. UTSA had a 4th-and-1 at the A&M 22 when Jarveon Williams was stacked up for no gain by Aggies defensive tackle Kingsley Keke and linebacker Shaan Washington.
A UTSA touchdown at that point could have reduced A&M’s lead to two points. Instead, A&M opened a 23-7 advantage when its offense went the other way in a hurry, 78 yards on four plays.
Highlights included a 37-yard pass from Hubenak to Seals-Jones and then a 47-yard TD romp by Trayveon Williams, who has scored seven TDs for the Aggies this year.
Notebook: Jared Johnson has enjoyed two strong showings off the bench at quarterback in the past two weeks for UTSA. He threw for two second-half touchdowns last week at Louisiana Tech.
Rhodes, who suffered a bruise in his collar bone area last week, did not play for the first time this season. Offensive line starters Austin Pratt and Juan Perez-Isidoro also sat out against A&M.
Defensive end Marcus Davenport led the Roadrunners with a career-high 11 tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery. Safety Jordan Moore forced the fumble in the first quarter with a jarring hit on Seals-Jones.
After sitting out the first half, redshirt freshman linebacker Josiah Tauaefa made four tackles, increasing his season total to a school-record 98.
Tauaefa served a first-half suspension because of a targeting call against Louisiana Tech.
UTSA was flagged for its fourth targeting call in four games in the first quarter against A&M when safety Carl Austin III collided with Hubenak. Austin, by rule, was ejected.
With the loss, the Roadrunners remained winless against opponents from the Power 5 (0-9) and against Top 25 teams (0-5).
Coming up: Hoping to win a sixth game this season for bowl eligibility, UTSA will host Charlotte at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Alamodome in the regular-season finale for both teams.
Charlotte will be playing for pride only. A few hours after the Roadrunners lost to the Aggies, the 49ers (4-7, 3-4 in the C-USA) fell out of bowl contention with a 38-31 loss at home to Middle Tennessee.