By Jerry Briggs
UTSA fans can be excused for saving a memento – a ticket stub, a rolled-up program or even a popcorn box -- from a game played at the Alamodome on Nov. 26, 2016.
That was the day the Roadrunners qualified for their first bowl appearance.
Most fans will remember it for a confetti-strewn celebration following a regular-season, closing victory over Charlotte, when a sea of orange-clad fans streamed onto the playing surface to party with the players.
It was a memorable moment in a season filled with them, for sure.
But in retrospect, maybe it’s also worth mentioning both Oct. 8 and Oct. 29 as key dates in the team’s historic sixth season, as well.
On those two Saturdays, UTSA players learned the value of paying close attention to the smallest of details during weekly preparation.
They discovered, in victories over Southern Mississippi and North Texas, the importance of playing with great effort and precision in the red zone.
For a quick explainer, the red zones are a pair of rectangular areas on the field stretching from sideline to sideline and from each goal line to the 20.
UTSA dominated play in those areas during double-digit wins over both Southern Miss (55-32) and North Texas (31-14).
Against Southern Miss, the Roadrunners’ offense converted with points on all six of its trips into the red zone, including five touchdowns.
The Golden Eagles, in turn, reached the red zone on five possessions, but they came up with only two touchdowns and a field goal.
Three weeks later against the Mean Green, the Roadrunners did it again, converting 4-for-4 scoring chances with offensive possession inside the 20, tallying three TDs.
North Texas, for its part, was frustrated repeatedly by the UTSA defense, scoring only twice (with a TD and a field goal) in five red-zone chances.
Fans roared their approval, in particular, on one Roadrunners’ defensive effort.
As Mean Green running back Jeffrey Wilson tried to score on a run from the UTSA 1, defensive tackle King Newton forced a fumble, which was picked up by safety Michael Egwuagu.
Much to the delight of the crowd, Egwuagu started running it back, and even though he couldn’t break it for a score, fans roared their approval at his 59-yard return to the other side of the field on the last play of the half.
Looking back at last season, UTSA wasn’t a great team in Frank Wilson’s first year as coach. Nobody ever called them dominant, by any means.
They finished 6-7, including a bowl loss to New Mexico. But in certain phases, they did things extremely well, and red zone play was one of them.
The Roadrunners finished as Conference USA’s top-rated red zone defensive unit and the No. 3 unit (out of 13) in red zone offense.
Nationally, the Roadrunners ranked in the low 30s out of more than 120 FBS teams on both defense and offense.
So, even without five-star talent, UTSA thrived, with opponents’ offenses scoring against the defense on only 79 percent of their trips inside their 20. Or, on 38 out of 48 chances overall.
UTSA’s offense, on the other hand, scored on 88 percent of its red-zone possessions. That included a 68-percent rate in finishing with touchdowns.
In other words, the Dalton Sturm-led Roadrunners had 50 red-zone trips and scored 44 times, with 34 TDs.
Previously, the best offensive performance in UTSA’s four years in C-USA was 87 percent in 2013, Eric Soza’s senior year, when the Roadrunners finished 7-5.
Wilson said he stresses the importance of red-zone play at least twice a week during the regular season.
“You know, it’s a real task to go the length of a field,” he said. “To put together double-digit drives … requires discipline, attention to detail and consistency.
“So, when you get down there, after putting a drive together, the ability to punch it into the end zone is critical for us, whether it’s by a field goal or touchdown.”
Wilson said he demands the same effort from his defense.
“From a defensive standpoint, we’re going to try not to break at that point,” he said. “(We’ll try to) put our heels on the goal line, and really hold on steadfast, and try to deny the offense.”
It’s sound philosophy, all right. Most likely, it led to at least two victories in October and quite a bit of momentum down the stretch of last season.
Think about it. If UTSA had lost to either Southern Miss or North Texas, everything would have changed.
With a loss in either one of those games, a victory over Charlotte on the last day wouldn’t have been nearly as meaningful.
It’s not likely that fans would have been partying on the field with the players after a 5-7 finish.