By Jerry Briggs
The six-year-old UTSA football program experienced a few significant firsts Saturday night, including a surprising sudden change in the weather inside the Alamodome.
Not long after the fans counted down the final seconds of a historic 33-14 victory over the Charlotte 49ers, it started to rain at the south end of the indoor stadium.
Actually, two cannons shot confetti into the air, and it rained down on top of players, coaches and hundreds of fans who had assembled to celebrate the program achieving bowl eligibility for the first time.
Afterward, first-year coach UTSA coach Frank Wilson side-stepped a question about how he felt at that moment.
Instead, he thanked the fans for their support.
“You know, it’s never about the individual,” Wilson said. “It’s never about me. It’s about all of those people who have invested in this university, including this community. We made a rally cry on a Thanksgiving weekend, and asked them to come out and support us.
“We told them we needed their support. We had 20 something thousand (in attendance), but you would have sworn it was 60 thousand, because they were loud, they were prideful, and they represented us extremely well.”
The Roadrunners did their part in rousing the announced crowd of 23,807, pulling away with touchdowns on two straight drives in the fourth quarter to turn back the 49ers in the regular-season finale for both teams.
As a result, Charlotte (4-8, 3-5) had its three-game road winning streak in Conference USA games snapped. UTSA (6-6, 5-3) reached bowl eligibility with the win that came in the wake of two straight road losses.
Technically speaking, UTSA isn’t guaranteed a bowl game. It must first receive an invitation first. But UTSA athletic director Lynn Hickey said she expects to get one.
Hickey said UTSA will learn its destination and its opponent next weekend, on the day after the C-USA title game.
“So, on Sunday (Dec. 4) … we will get our call,” she said.
Early speculation is that UTSA could be headed to C-USA affiliated postseason games in either New Orleans, Dallas or Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Both the H-L Carriers New Orleans Bowl and the Gildan New Mexico Bowl are set for Dec. 17. The Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl is scheduled for Dec. 27.
Other bowls with C-USA ties include the Boca Raton Bowl (Dec. 20), the Popeye’s Bahamas Bowl (Dec. 23) or the Hawaii Bowl (Dec. 24). Hickey said she has asked the C-USA commissioner to keep UTSA close to home.
“So, I’m hoping that they’ll give us that opportunity,” she said. “Other than that, hey, when it gets down to it, if they send us to Alaska, we’re going.”
Hickey first started talking about adding a football program in 2001. After students voted to raise fees to support it financially, the University of Texas System Board of Regents approved the business plan in December 2008. Larry Coker was hired as the team’s first coach in March 2009.
Even with Coker and his staff initially working out of a trailer set up behind the physical education building on campus, Hickey was optimistic.
“I really believed starting this program could be very, very special because of the city, the campus (and) what coach Coker and his staff did,” Hickey said. “When coach Wilson got here, it took us to a whole (another) level.
“So many people from the very beginning need to be credited, because it’s been a team effort,” she continued. “I remember when coach Coker got here, and we gave him three assistant coaches and they were (working out of a) a trailer. (We told him,) ‘Go find a team.’”
UTSA was not eligible to make a bowl in Years 1-3, from 2011-13, as the program played and transitioned from the Football Championship Subdivision to the higher-echelon Football Bowl Subdivision.
Eligible for the first time three years ago to make a bowl if it reached the required six victories, the Roadrunners couldn’t get there. Instead, they stumbled to a 4-8 record in 2014 and then 3-9 last year.
At that point, UTSA fired Coker and hired Wilson last January to turn around the program’s sagging fortunes. Tasked with the rebuilding effort, Wilson pulled it off in only one year. Earlier, this season, his team won four out five games to surge into postseason contention.
In the past few weeks, UTSA lost at Louisiana Tech and Texas A&M, but then it returned home, intent on claiming a piece of history. And, following the coach’s lead, the players pulled it off.
“I don’t even have a word to describe (this),” said UTSA senior running back Jarveon Williams, one of 22 seniors who played one last game for UTSA at the dome. “It’s been a long time coming. When we first got here, we didn’t really have much. Even the good season we did have, we couldn’t go to a bowl yet.”
In “the good year,” in 2013, UTSA finished 7-5 overall and 6-2 in its first year in C-USA. It wasn’t eligible that year by rule, because it was in its second and final season of reclassifying into the FBS. Regardless, some of the stalwarts from that team showed up to watch the team against Charlotte.
Eric Soza, Kam Jones, Cody Rogers and Richard Burge were among former players who attended. UTSA senior Michael Egwuagu said it was special to have some of the early stars of the program in attendance for the milestone, especially Soza.
“When I first came in, he saw I was wearing the No. 8 jersey, just like him,” Egwuagu said. “He sort of took me under his wing. He was like, ‘This is what’s going to happen, to become a leader.’ I remember trying to emulate hiss demeanor, his mannerisms, how he went about carrying himself.
“It just meant the world to be able to get a bowl game, get bowl eligible, in front of those guys that really started the program.”
Fittingly, both UTSA quarterbacks played well against Charlotte, with Soza looking on. Junior Dalton Sturm hit 18 of 33 passes for a season-high 286 yards and two touchdowns.
After the 49ers scored on the first play of the fourth quarter to pull within six points, senior Jared Johnson came off the bench for Sturm and took charge.
Johnson, a senior transfer from Sam Houston State, directed two straight touchdown drives to put the game out of reach. First, he threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Marquez McNair.
Later, he led the team down field, setting up a Jalen Rhodes 2-yard run for the final score with 4:29 remaining.
Upstairs, Hickey finally started to breathe easier. Battling nerves and anxiety, she had stopped watching at the outset of the fourth quarter, when UTSA turned it over in the shadow of its own goal line.
Punter Yannis Routsas bobbled a snap from center, Charlotte’s Juwan Foggie picked it up and walked into the end zone from three yards out.
Led by Sturm, UTSA built a 20-7 lead through three quarters. Sturm hit Kerry Thomas, Jr. with a 73-yard touchdown pass on Roadrunners’ first possession.
Not to be outdone, Charlotte answered on its next possession to tie it 7-7 with its own big play, a 76-yard TD pass from Hasaan Klugh to Austin Duke.
From there, UTSA added a 21-yard field goal by Victor Falcon for a 10-7 lead after one quarter. By halftime, the Roadrunners led 17-7 after Sturm connected on a 13-yard scoring strike to Brady Jones.
Falcon hit again from 26 yards out as UTSA extended its advantage to 20-7.
Turning point: Early in the fourth quarter, Charlotte capitalized on a UTSA mistake to pull within six points. Roadrunners punter Yannis Routsas fumbled a snap from center. Charlotte’s Juwan Foggie picked it up and scored from the three, making it 20-14 with 14:54 remaining.
When UTSA got the ball back, Jared Johnson was at quarterback in place of Dalton Sturm. The UTSA senior immediately led the Roadrunners on a 7-play, 76-yard scoring drive. Under pressure, he threw a perfect ball to Marquez McNair for a touchdown, extending the lead to 26-14.
Notepad: If UTSA plays in a bowl game next month, as expected, it would tie the record for the fastest rise from start-up to the postseason. South Alabama set the record by making a bowl six years in 2014. Georgia State tied it last year.
The announced crowd of 23,807 for the Charlotte game included the one millionth fan to come through the gates of the dome for a UTSA game.
The Roadrunners have now drawn 1,005,495 fans in their six seasons of play, in 36 home games.
UTSA’s total attendance for the season was 138,226, an average of 23,037 fans for each game. It represented a slight increase over last year’s program low of 23,008. UTSA averaged 35,521 in 2011, a record for an NCAA start-up program.
Coach Frank Wilson got a Gatorade bath after the game, doused on the sideline by Egwuagu, Williams, defensive tackle Vontrell King-Williams and tight end Trevor Stevens.
Junior receiver Kerry Thomas made five catches for a school single-game record 145 yards. It was the first 100-yard performance of his career.
Sophomore running back Jalen Rhodes scored on a 2-yard run in the fourth period to give him nine rushing TDs, a single-season school record.
Redshirt freshman linebaker Josiah Tauaefa made six tackles, increasing his season total to a single-season school record of 104. It is the first time a UTSA player has topped 100 tackles in a season.
Coming up: UTSA is expected to play in its first bowl game next month. The bowl and the opponent will be announced on Dec. 4.