By Jerry Briggs
In some ways, the Gildan New Mexico Bowl will serve as an inspiration for all the eccentrics of the world. For the quirky. For pedestrians who like to walk on the left side off the road.
On one sideline, you have the New Mexico Lobos, who are prepared to turn the clock back 30 years to the golden age of triple-option football.
“They’re totally different from everyone we’ve seen,” first-year UTSA coach Frank Wilson said. “They’re rare.”
Wilson is a unique stylist in his own right. He has run his offense for the past month using two quarterbacks.
Even though junior Dalton Sturm has started all year, senior Jared Johnson has emerged lately as a player who seems to be oozing confidence.
“You really don’t see many offenses that play with two quarterbacks,” Roadrunners safety Nate Gaines said. “(Our quarterbacks) are very much different, but they also have some qualities that are alike.”
In the past four games, Johnson has directed 18 drives, and five of them have ended in touchdowns. Two others produced field goals.
“Like you say, as (an opposing defensive) coordinator you have your hands full (preparing for UTSA),” Gaines said. “You probably have to have different schemes.”
Fans of the Roadrunners, a six-year-old program, have never seen anything like it.
For the first three seasons, Eric Soza was the entrenched starter who rarely came off the field.
Soza led UTSA to its best year in 2013 when the Roadrunners finished 7-5 and beat seven FBS opponents.
In 2014 and 2015, when UTSA skidded to a combined 7-17 record, the quarterback position devolved into a source of heartbreak and frustration.
Multiple quarterbacks played, but changes in the heat of competition usually came as a result of injuries.
This year, Wilson played both Sturm and Johnson, finished 6-6 and led his first team as a college head coach to the first bowl in school history.
At the outset, Sturm won the starter’s job in a fall-camp battle with Johnson. He promptly got off to a fast start.
Through the first six games, Sturm hit at least 65 percent of his passes four times. In the first eight, the former walk-on from Goliad threw for 15 TD passes against four interceptions.
Lately, Johnson has started to come on strong in his own right.
After sitting out four straight games at midseason, he played two series in the fourth quarter of UTSA’s blowout victory at Middle Tennessee State and four more the next week, all of them late in a lopsided loss at Louisiana Tech.
It was the start of an upward trajectory for Johnson, who threw for two touchdowns at Louisiana Tech, one at Texas A&M and one more in the regular-season finale against Charlotte.
Against A&M, the graduate transfer from Sam Houston State entered the game in the first quarter and never came out.
A week later, with UTSA’s bowl eligibility on the line and the Roadrunners leading by only six points, he directed touchdown drives of 76 and 77 yards in a 33-14 victory over Charlotte.
“I think he’s just so experienced,” Wilson said, explaining Johnson’s knack for producing results off the bench. “He’s been in those situations. He’s played in FCS championship playoff games (at Sam Houston). He’s played a lot of football.
“An experienced player can come off the bench with a calming effect, a poise, in recognizing what’s going on … His experience has been his best teacher.”
Sometimes, a rotation or an alternating system of quarterbacks blows up in a coach’s face. Not so with the Sturm-Johnson experiment.
“The culture here is (set) the right way,” Wilson said. “In the meeting rooms, the communication lines are open. There’s no element of surprises … when a (new) guy comes in to a game. We communicate effectively with our guys. It allows us to do what is best for us.”
Sturm has enjoyed his finest year as a Roadrunner, hitting 58 percent of his passes for 2,052 yards. He’s also thrown for 18 TDs, two off Soza’s school record, against only five interceptions.
In the second half, Sturm has been sack-prone and not as effective as a passer. But against Charlotte, he enjoyed one of his best games, throwing for a season-high 286 yards and two touchdowns.
Sturm has a big arm and can launch a long spiral probably better than anyone who’s ever worn the orange and blue, but his teammates love his speed afoot.
Also, his toughness. In UTSA’s season-turning victory at Middle Tennessee State, Sturm took off on a scramble and collided with a safety near the goal line.
The Middle Tennessee safety hit the turf, but Sturm did not.
“Man, Dalton is a dawg,” Gaines said a few days later.
In the fourth quarter against Charlotte, it was Johnson’s turn to make a winning play, and the former prep star at Grand Prairie did it with finesse and toughness.
Pressured by the pass rush, he calmly threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Marquez McNair. Film showed Johnson getting knocked down after his release.
“He did a backwards roll,” UTSA receiver Josh Stewart said, laughing. “But it was a great pass. Marquez ran a route, he turned and, literally, he looks up and the ball just drops right in. It was a perfect throw.”
Asked if he thinks New Mexico coaches have seen film of the play, Stewart nodded in the affirmative.
“I believe they’re checking it out, trying to get ready for us,” he said.