By: Jamar Brown (@CranEnthusiast)
2021 marked a turning point in the UTSA Football program. It brought the school its first 10-win season, first CUSA Division title, and most importantly, the first Conference Championship in the school’s history to name just a few firsts experienced this season. The city of San Antonio and the student body at UTSA embraced the team in a way that you'd expect small-town teams to embrace their local high school. We saw local businesses light up their buildings orange and blue to show that they supported the team. The student section showed out in ways that would rival big-time Power 5 schools. Over $100,000 was raised to provide students with tickets and transportation to not only the conference championship game, but to the bowl game as well. From the beginning of me writing this, we are 8 months exactly from kicking off the 2022 season, but before I get too ahead of myself, I think it’s important for me (and us as a fanbase) to reflect on just what happened in the past 4 months.
The feeling around the program and fanbase was positive at the end of August. The ribbon-cutting ceremony at the R.A.C.E. facility was just a sample of what was to come during the season. The lid lifter on Jeff Traylors' second year at the helm of UTSA was the first sign of the potential this Roadrunner team had. They traveled to Champaign, Illinois to take on the then 1-0 Illinois Fighting Illini on a Saturday night. Illinois had just taken down Nebraska in Brett Bielema’s return to coaching Big 10 football and was riding an emotional high. They were missing their starting quarterback and were learning how to do life without some of their key players from the previous season who left for the NFL. UTSA on the other hand had experience (and talent) on their side. An abundance of super seniors that benefited from an extra year of eligibility and an emerging, young receiving core showed the country just who UTSA is. UTSA never trailed and ended up winning 37-30. The victory marked the first win for UTSA against a Big 10 opponent and gave the program just their second Power 5 victory ever and the first since 2017 against Baylor. It also highlighted the improvement of the passing attack, spearheaded by quarterback Frank Harris and receivers Zakhari Franklin, Joshua Cephus, and JT Clark, something that UTSA was missing since 2017 when Dalton Sturm was under center for the Roadrunners.
The ‘Runners took that momentum into the home opener against Lamar where they flat out dominated a Cardinal team that looked like they had zero preparation for the game. The final score was 54-0 and marked the first shutout in UTSA history and just the second punt return for a touchdown in the school’s history by Sheldon Jones. The next game featured the visiting Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders in a game which UTSA essentially dominated for 55 minutes. This was a game in which the opposing starting quarterback quit the team at halftime. It ended with a final score of 27-13, the first score for MTSU coming with 5 minutes remaining in the game. At this point in the season, the Birds are sitting at 3-0 with the toughest road test of the season upon them.
September 25th, 2021. A day that will forever be engrained in a UTSA fan’s memory forever and ever. The day before my 23rd birthday, fun fact. The Roadrunners traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to face a Memphis Tigers team that was coming off a somewhat controversial win the week before against Mississippi State. If you weren’t at the game, the place to be was at Pinkerton’s BBQ in downtown San Antonio in the shadow of the Frost Building. The original Bad Birds were all in attendance to watch the Roadrunners hopefully go 4-0 to start the season. From the opening quarter, a vast majority of the restaurant believed that dream to be dead and resorted to burning through their drink tickets on margaritas or canned beer. At the end of the first quarter, we saw the Tigers go up 21-0. In that quarter we saw a fumble recovered for a touchdown and a 60-yard bomb from a kid from Denton to a guy named Austin, all nightmares for UTSA faithful. The half ended 21-7 thanks to the legs of Sincere McCormick. Even after the debacle that was the first half, I was unfazed. Something in my mind told me that the 'Runners weren't out of it yet, something that I would experience several more times over the remainder of the season. The second half started, and the first 10 minutes was a defensive slugfest. With just over 5 minutes left in the third, McCormick punched in his second touchdown of the afternoon to cut the lead to 7. 2 minutes later, the Tigers' lead was back up to 14. From then on, the Collapse at the Liberty Bowl began. UTSA opened up the 4th quarter with a touchdown from Frank Harris to none other than Z himself. 3 minutes later? Another touchdown run from RUN 3MC. From that point on, UTSA’s defense woke up and dominated the remainder of the 4th quarter. The Tigers fumbled twice in that quarter and punted on their last possession to give UTSA a chance to win it with a little over 2 minutes to go. In 9 plays, UTSA went 47 yards to set up a game-winning field goal attempt by Hunter Duplessis with 2 seconds remaining. The atmosphere in Pinkerton's was still at this point in the game. Hands are being held and arms are draped over shoulders in anticipation for what could be the kick that would deliver UTSA their biggest comeback victory in program history. The snap and hold are good. The kick is away, and it’s made and would’ve been good from probably 55 yards out. The restaurant erupts and I run out of the front door screaming and crying due to all the emotions built up in the first 59 minutes. The final score was 31-28 and the Liberty Bowl was stunned silent. Hell of a way to celebrate 23, huh? The ‘Runners would then go on and struggle to put away a UNLV team that they were undoubtedly better than in a warmup bout before what would be the then game of the year against WKU on the road (and there were several “game of the year” games).
Raise your hand if you’ve heard the name Bailey Zappe before the beginning of this season. I see Jared Kalmus (@JaredUTSA) and I have our hands up. Now, raise your hand if you know the name after the season. That should be everybody reading this and even those who aren't. You see, Jared and I "know" Zappe from before the fame and records. Jared is a native of Zappe's Victoria, TX. I actually played against him… in basketball. I remember him because he was the only white kid starting on a team full of athletic black kids. He was decent on the court, fundamentally sound, and had a shot on him. If I knew the nightmares he'd give me and my friends though, I probably would've taken matters into my own hands years ago. Now I'm reflecting too far back in my past.
Following the nail-biter (?) against UNLV, the Roadrunners had to look forward to the now forever yardage king in the NCAA, Bailey Zappe, and the air raid offense that Western Kentucky runs to a T. Another road game meant another watch party, but where? None other than my friend Jawed's house of course (@Jofred98). Another fun fact, this was the first time I met Jawed's mom. This was a game that I had circled back on my calendar all the way back to last spring when I did my "Way too early" preview of the season. I saw the numbers Zappe put up at Houston Baptist with basically the same crew and knew that if constructed correctly would translate to CUSA perfectly. UTSA brought their 5-0 record into Bowling Green with one question: How many yards does Sincere need to be able to hold up against this air raid? Well, what if I told you that the hero of this game wasn't Sincere McCormick. If you told Jamar of 8 months ago that the reason UTSA goes on the win this game was because Frank Harris out-dueled Bailey Zappe, I probably would've asked who Bailey Zappe is. All jokes aside, in years past, I had been very critical of Frank Harris. I've practically begged him (from afar) to prove me wrong. This game (and this season) did just that. Frank threw for a program-record 6 touchdowns, caught a touchdown, and even forced a fumble after throwing an interception. How could you not fall in love with the guy after a performance like that? Let this article be my public apology to Frank Harris. I will follow you into anything, my brother. Even after all of Frank’s heroics, the Hilltoppers (ew) had the ball with a little over 3 minutes to play to win the whole thing and the tension at Jawed’s was high. I drank a whole cider in the final drive. It seemed that in the blink of an eye, Zappe had driven his team all the way down to the UTSA 5-yard line. The next drive was a 4-yard completion to Jarreth Sterns, but the football gods smiled on the ‘Runners. Illegal block in the back, 15-yard penalty. This backed the Hilltoppers back to the 20-yard line. Any causal football fan would feel elated with this news. I was terrified of an air raid offense having more space to score the ball. The next two plays were anxiety-inducing. An incomplete (?) pass to Sterns and then a 5-yard scramble by Zappe to set up a 3rd and goal from the 15. The next play will go down as a top 10 UTSA Football moment (from this season). Zappe steps back and fires a dart to the end zone on the right side but before it connects with his receiver, it’s snatched out of the air by Clarence Hicks who just performed the most athletic feat I had ever seen in my 23 years. Jawed’s house erupts, and I think we might’ve woken up his mom, but we didn’t care at the time. All we knew is, we took down the wonder kid at his house in the most dramatic way possible. The next plays were the best in football: Victory formation, UTSA wins, 52-46.
Following a win against one of the top offenses in the country, a 6-0 start which included 3 tough road wins, you’d think UTSA would be ranked by now, right? Wrong. The Roadrunners were one of only a handful of undefeated teams and had yet to be ranked despite receiving votes every week outside of the initial pre-season rankings. The fans and students (and probably players) were furious. What was the response? The second shutout in program history against Rice on homecoming. Rice stood no chance at all, averaging only 2 yards per play. That’s not a typo either. That’s real stuff. The final score was 45-0 and the style points essentially forced the AP and the Coaches Poll to include the Roadrunners. The AP poll had the ‘Runners ranked at 24 while the Coaches Poll had them at 25. More firsts for a team that was established 11 years prior.
The next three weeks featured two road tests for the orange and blue against Louisiana Tech and UTEP sandwiched around a much-needed bye week, the first in the Traylor era. Before the LaTech game, some big-time news was dropped on CUSA. On October 21st, it was announced that the American Athletic Conference would be expanding after losing UCF, Cincinnati, and Houston all to the Big 12 after it was announced that Texas and Oklahoma would be leaving to the SEC in the near future. CUSA would be losing a total of 6 teams to the conference realignment, UTSA being the most notable one. This news watered down the game in Ruston just a bit, especially since LaTech wouldn't be a part of the move to the AAC. Alas, there was still a football game to be played. Ruston, Louisiana has never been a kind place to Roadrunners, but this year couldn't have gone better (besides a shut-out). The Bulldogs swung first but UTSA kept swinging to a 45-16 victory to spoil the Bulldog's homecoming, hopefully marking the final time UTSA will have to travel there.
Remember how I said the bye week was much needed? Well, the events of the bye week weren’t. In a year of momentous highs for UTSA, the biggest low possible almost happened. After their 1-point loss to Kansas State, Texas Tech fired head coach Matt Wells. Anyways, this sent a shockwave through the UTSA fandom because the top candidate for the job was none other than Jeffery Traylor. The same Jeffery Traylor that currently had UTSA at 8-0. UTSA Twitter was in a frenzy scrambling to figure out what was real and what was fake. Flight manifests were being checked to see if they had anything to do with Tech or their donors heading to San Antonio. The anxiety surrounding the program was worse than it was during the Memphis and WKU game combined. Cryptic tweets sent out by various UTSA media personnel, players, and even Coach Traylor felt like the deal was done and that coach was leaving us. Even the Texas Tech media thought the hire was in the bag. The fandom began to cope with the fact that we were losing our North Star (not the mall). And then, at the Witching Hour (it was during Halloween) a tweet had been "twoted" by the UTSA Football account that went unnoticed for a few minutes by the UTSA faithful. The headline read two, beautiful words. “Our coach.”. They went on to announce that Coach Traylor had signed a 10-year contract extension through 2031. I was at work when the news broke and yet I was the first of the original Bad Birds to send the tweet to our group chat. I cried in the bathroom at work because I knew what this meant not only to the football team but to the school and city that I love so much. Our October to remember was capped off by the greatest news a UTSA fan could’ve gotten.
Following an emotional bye week, the focus now turned to UTEP, the final trip for the foreseeable future to El Paso after it was announced that UTSA was heading to the American in realignment and UTEP would not be joining them. The older alumni had mentioned that El Paso was the best trip to make in the conference and since it would be the last trip, the Bad Birds packed up and headed out west. The drive proved to be worth it at the Roadrunners sent home a packed Sun Bowl home in their Tacoma's empty-handed. This game felt like a statement as it gave the Birds their 9th consecutive win of the season, tying the most games in program history.
The next game against a lowly, shorthanded Southern Mississippi team felt a lot like the UNLV and MTSU. They were games that came right before the best teams we would play all year and the team came out flat and took a while to pick up steam. Before Memphis, it was Middle Tennessee and before Western Kentucky it was UNLV. Heading home after the UTEP blowout, the thought process for every UTSA fan was shifted towards UAB and we still had another game before we even got to that point. USM caught us sleeping and the team as a whole struggled to gain any footing. Once the crowd got into it, it seemed like the Roadrunners didn't look back. They squeaked out a disappointing 27-17 victory against a team that was down to their 6th string quarterback. The biggest fear among the fans was if we would still be ranked the following day and how would we respond to a UAB team that took out Marshall on the road.
There have been plenty of stories where the little guy has risen up to defeat a near God-like figure. David and Goliath. The “We Believe” Warriors. Shrek. I had personally never had the chance to experience something like that until UAB/UTSA. The Blazers from Birmingham and the Bad Birds from Babcock. How the West was Won. There are so many names for it, it just sounds like a Greek epic. UAB came into the season as the 3-time defending CUSA West Champion. They had won two of the last three championship games dating back to 2018. They were the class of CUSA. UTSA was coming into this game with all of the hype and headlines. They were ranked, undefeated, and looking for their first-ever division championship. November 20th in the Alamodome was expected to be a day to remember. I don’t think anybody expected it to go exactly how it went, though.
The atmosphere leading up to the game was different from everything else. It was quiet. All about business from the players to the coaches and even to the fans. Everyone knew about this game. The city was buzzing, and this would be the game to either get the city behind the team 100% or watch the casual fan crawl under a rock until the team actually beat “somebody”. A ticket to the conference championship was on the line and that was all that was in anybody’s mind. While my friends and I frequented the student section for home games, this week we would be trading in our season tickets for instruments. For those who don't know, the Bad Birds originated from members of the Spirit of San Antonio (S.O.S.A) at a baseball game following a first-round exit from the men's basketball team at the conference tournament. The anger from that game fueled the cult that is known as the Bad Birds. The UAB game was also Alumni Band for S.O.S.A. Band members from the past 11 years would return to see a team that they have cheered for possibly clinch their first-ever division title. Could you paint a better storyline? I could tell plenty of stories from that day, starting with Joe (@tacojoe_) falling and crushing his trumpet, but I'll save those for another article. Arriving at the stadium for this game felt surreal and I didn't know how to process a lot of it early on. We went through our usual alumni band warm-up and by the time I knew it (thanks to alcohol), it was game time. The atmosphere in the 'Dome was electric, and it was the fullest I had ever seen it. It took UAB less than a minute to score the first touchdown, a 74-yard bomb. It took 10 minutes for UTSA to respond with a touchdown of their own, and yet the game was tied 7-7 heading into the closing seconds of the first until UAB scored on a 40-yard touchdown to lead with 8 seconds left in the first. It was a back and forth scoring affair through the second quarter as the teams traded touchdowns and field goals. The Blazers closed the first half with a field goal to go up 24-17. UTSA would the ball at the half. UTSA opened up the second half with a 54-yard bomb from Harris to, of course, Franklin for 54-yards in the first minute of the third quarter to tie the game. It would be all defense in the 3rd following the touchdown until the last minute and a half where UTSA scored a field goal to take their first lead of the night, 27-24. The 4th quarter is where things got insane, and legends were made.
The 4th quarter started with UAB possessing the ball. They go three and out thanks to a Clarence Hicks sack and are forced to punt. The only issue with that is the biggest mental mistake for UTSA was made during the punt because there were two players on the field who had the same number. This was a 5-yard penalty that gave UAB the ball back in a crucial moment. The Blazers ran another 3 plays and were forced to punt yet again thanks to another sack by Clarence Hicks, his second in this drive. UTSA gains possession of the ball at their own 15 but a sack-fumble on 3rd down backs the ‘Runners back to their 2-yard line and they’re forced to punt from a terrible spot on the field. The next drive seemed like momentum was swinging in UAB’s favor as they used several big plays to march down the field and score in 3 minutes, giving the ball back to the Roadrunners with just over 5 minutes to play. This next drive shaved off 5 years on my life expectancy.
UTSA goes 10 plays and after a questionable personnel call, it’s now 3rd and 10. The biggest 3rd down in UTSA history. Frank gets the snap, sits in the pocket, and throws a beautiful ball to Zakhari on the sideline which to everyone that wasn't on the UAB sideline looked like a catch. The play is ruled incomplete however and goes to review. After the play is shown what felt like 100 times, everyone in the crowd was sure it would be ruled a catch. Yet, the official used his "best" judgment and the call stood as incomplete. The obscenities heard being yelled towards the officials would make Richard Pryor cringe. On the next play, Frank connects with Z again, but it's ruled short and then it's a turnover on downs. At this point, a vast majority of those in attendance felt like the game was over and that UTSA was robbed by the officials, but there was a minute and fifty-two seconds remaining in the ball game. UAB runs three plays and gets down to what many believed was the game-sealing 1st down. After a moment, the officials call the chain gang on and it’s revealed that McBride was about two links short, causing it to be 4th and short. McBride had been running all over the UTSA defense so many expected him to have his number called on 4th and short to seal the game but instead, Bill Clark decides to take a delay of game penalty and punt the ball back to UTSA with 1:06 remaining on the game clock. The first play is an incomplete pass followed by what be one of the best passes I’ve seen Frank Harris throw. Stepping up in the pocket, he throws a 28-yard dart to Oscar Cardenas that had it been a second too late, would’ve been a pick. He follows that off with a quick completion to JT Clark who gets out of bounds to stop the clock and then an absolute bomb to Clark yet again who makes a beautiful catch that also stops the clock. It is now 1st and goal at the UAB 10-yard line when Frank takes the ball himself and gets absolutely stonewalled at the 1-yard line. The ‘Dome erupted because every single person thought he was going to get in. A great team effort by the Blazers kept him out of the end zone. After a Blazer player gets "injured" on the play, the clock is stopped at 9 seconds. On the next play, Frank tries to connect with Josh Cephus on an out route that ends up going incomplete with 7 seconds remaining in the game. It's now 3rd and goal at the 1-yard line and UTSA has no timeouts remaining. The next play is the biggest in UTSA history.
I’ve been watching UTSA football since 2017. My first game was the first Power 5 win in school history at Baylor. I had seen some pretty good highs and some incredible lows. Heading into this game, I had watched my school win 10 straight games, the best in program history, two years after being one of the laughing stocks of the conference. All the highs and all the lows culminated into the next 4 seconds. I’ve made a lot of friends at UTSA, but I consider a handful my forever friends. I had the pleasure of standing next to some of those guys during this play. It’s 3rd and goal at the UAB 1-yard line and there are 7 seconds to go in the game. One completion that doesn't get into the endzone or out of bounds is ball game. A sack is ball game. Anything other than a touchdown or a quick throw away ends the game. The ball is snapped, but it skids across the ground. Sincere McCormick looks like he's coming across Frank for a play-action but freezes almost mid-step in order not to kick the ball away from Frank. This all happens in one second by the way. Frank picks the ball up and starts to roll left. A gang of 3 Blazers has Frank in their sights and are daring him to run the football. Instead of running it, Harris throws the most awkward, beautiful pass I've ever seen to the back of the endzone to none other than the kid who went to high school down the street from UTSA, Oscar Cardenas. The ball is tipped slightly by a UAB defender, but it doesn't matter. Cardenas adjusts his body slightly and is able to get that ball in his hands and secure it. Touchdown. All of his teammates rush to him and instead of celebrating or dancing on the field, he jumps up and throws the biggest Birds Up I have ever seen in my entire life towards the student section. That play, that image encapsulates the entire season for the UTSA Roadrunners, and I haven't even covered the last three games yet. The extra point is good, yet there are still 3 seconds left on the clock. A squib kick is kicked, and the tackle is made. Ball game, CUSA West Division Champions UTSA.
At this point in the season, UTSA is riding an all-time high. The 'Runners sit as one of 3 undefeated teams in the entire country and just clinched a spot in the school's first conference championship game. Now, you'd think that with all this hype and national attention, the Birds would head into their final game of the season, guns blazing looking for that elusive 12th win that would complete the undefeated season. Well, mother nature had other ideas.
The final week in the regular season for college football is known as Rivalry Week (real tongue twister). This marks the biggest game of the year for most schools. In the Big 10, you have Michigan/Ohio State. In the SEC, you have the Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn. The Pac 12 has the Apple Cup and the Big 12 has Bedlam. Well, in CUSA, you have UNT/UTSA. Every installment of this game has just deepened the disdain between both fan bases and players and will continue to live on past realignment as UNT will be heading to the AAC with UTSA. Heading into the 9th meeting of this matchup, the series is tied 4-4 with UTSA coming off the most recent win at the Alamodome. A win here would mean something to both teams. A UTSA victory caps off the dream undefeated season and shuts the mouths of UNT fans for the next year and would redeem the team from the loss suffered two years ago in Apogee Stadium. For UNT, a win makes the Mean Green bowl eligible at six wins and likely saves Seth Littrell's job. You would be hard-pressed to find a rivalry game that meant this much to both teams at this part of the season. And then the rain started. I'm not talking about a light, 10-minute drizzle either. I'm talking about a consistent, 3-and-a-half-hour rain that was bordering on a downpour in Denton, Texas. The game went exactly how you'd expect for a team that plays the vast majority of their games in a dome or even relatively decent weather. UTSA fumbled a total of 6 times and lost 3 of them with all 3 coming in UTSA territory. UNT also ran the ball for over 300 yards. So how do you think the game went? The only positive came towards the end of the 4th quarter when 3rd string quarterback Eddie Lee Marburger threw his first career touchdown, showing that even when Frank Harris decides to leave UTSA, the state of the program has a legitimate heir to the throne. The perfect season, however, was over.
After the game, the attention of the fan base turned to Huntington, West Virginia. While the perfect season was over, the perfect ending was still in sight. UTSA had clinched a ticket to play and host the championship game, but the team’s opponent still hadn’t been decided. In a classic win-and-in situation, Marshall was hosting Western Kentucky for a chance to represent the East in the game. Winner takes all and two of the best quarterbacks in the conference were set to go at it in Grant Wells and of course, Bailey Zappe. While the score was 14-0, Marshall, in the 2nd quarter, the game was all but decided when Grant Wells went down with an injury. After that, the shark that is Bailey Zappe smelled blood in the water and that was all she wrote. At the end of the 1st half, it was 14-6, Marshall. At the end of the game, it's 53-21, WKU. The Hilltoppers had punched their ticket to the conference championship game for a rematch against the 'Runners.
If I had to admit, I don’t think there was a single UTSA fan that wasn’t cheering for Marshall in their last game. Without a doubt, there was no way we wanted to see that offense again. But fate had other ideas in mind. Two titans were set to clash again on a Friday night in the Alamodome, and the first thought wasn't, "how do we stop Bailey Zappe?". It was, "how do we get students to the game?". For those of you who don't know (like a vast majority of UTSA fans), CUSA charges students to attend the conference championship game even though it's being held at one of the schools and not a neutral site. This was a sizable problem considering that the student section was the heart and soul of the fanbase this past season. They were a big part of the win over both USM and UAB and that's not just coming from me, a student. That comes from the big man Jeff Traylor himself. While the price of the tickets wasn't exorbitant, it was still more than some college students would be willing to pay, especially so close to graduation and finals. But then, a light broke through the mist. A light named April. April Ancira, VP of Ancira Auto Group and more importantly, a UTSA alum recognized just how important the student section was to this game and took it upon herself to start searching for solutions. She pledged $5,000 to the cause and challenged local businesses and UTSA alumni to join her in providing students with tickets. The next day, a crowdsourcing fund was set up so that people could donate with an initial goal of $20,000. Within a few days, $40,000 was raised. By the time kickoff came around, over $100,000 was raised. Needless to say, student tickets were covered.
With the ticket situation handled, eyes turned back to the game. The Roadrunners had just lost their first game of the season while the Hilltoppers were streaking at the perfect time. This game was set to feature the two best offenses in the conference. Many were just wondering if the sequel would live up to the original.
Grease 2, Speed 2, and all Home Alone sequels: suck. Shrek 2, The Dark Knight, and Finding Dory: not suck. Which category would UTSA/WKU fall under? After an anxiety-filled tailgate and a terrible job at just letting people into the game by the Alamodome, it was officially game time. WKU was set to receive the ball and the energy in the 'Dome was electric. And just like that, the energy was sucked out by a WKU touchdown in the opening minute. Where have I heard that before? It was up to Frank Harris and the offense to deliver as fast as possible to restore hope for this game and deliver they did. In just over 2 minutes, Frank takes a long run to the house to even the score. At the start of the second quarter, both teams had traded scores back and forth until it was 14-13, UTSA. From there, the game got busted wide open as UTSA went on to score 28 unanswered points heading into the 10-minute mark of the 3rd quarter which included a beast mode-like touchdown run in just 1 play. At this point, the entire city of San Antonio is filling their car up with gas for a night of honking downtown as their ‘Runners are leading 42-13. And then just like that, Bailey Zappe woke up.
It started with an innocent touchdown to get the score to 42-20. It was followed by a UTSA turnover on downs. And then another WKU touchdown but this time, a failed 2-point conversion, the score now being 42-26. After that was a missed UTSA field goal that gave the 'Toppers great field position that Zappe exploited in just 5 plays. It's now a one-score game. And then, something amazing happened. A second shining light in as many weeks. This one, however, was a literal light. Not just one. Thousands. Thousands and thousands of lights filled up the Alamodome. What started as one cellphone flashlight turned into a sea of light urging our team to finish the job. Letting them know that not only the fans in the stands, but the entire city was behind them. As my friends and I looked out at the lights, several tears were shed. At that moment, all that we had ever wanted for this team came true. For this city to love and support this team just as much as we have for the past several years. Shoutout to a true bad bird, Farah (@farah_hamed_).
You could probably credit the lights for the next drive. An offense that looked lost for the better part of the second half came to life and UTSA looked like themselves all the way to their final touchdown of the game to extend the lead to 15. With just over 6 minutes to go, Zappe was given the ball back and (stop me if you've heard this before) scored yet another touchdown, this one to Jerreth Sterns (obviously). A successful extra point cut the Roadrunner lead to just 8 with a shade under 4 minutes to go.
UTSA was given the ball back with the chance to put this game away. A couple of first downs and the first conference championship trophy would be theirs. Instead of doing this, two penalties essentially killed all positive yardage on that drive, and UTSA was forced to punt the ball back to Bailey Zappe with a chance to tie the game and write yet another chapter in his storied season.
With just over a minute, Bailey Zappe is given one more shot to send this game to overtime. The drive opens with two passes, one being completed short of the line to gain. On a 3rd and 3, Zappe drops back but is sacked by the rightful CUSA Defensive Player of the Year, Clarence Hicks. On the ensuing 4th down, what does Zappe do? He converts, obviously. The next two plays, Zappe goes 1-2 with the incompletion being a drop. After the completed pass, a timeout is called with 7 seconds remaining. If the best play in football is victory formation, then the most exciting is the Hail Mary. With 7 seconds to go and 47 yards to cover, the wonder kid from Victoria, Texas has to throw this ball with everything he has just for a chance to score a touchdown, score a 2-point conversion, and head to overtime. At this point, I'm begging for this game to not go to overtime. Not just because I didn't want WKU to win, but I had Jo Koy tickets for that night, and I was cutting it close (I missed half of the first opener). With 7 seconds to go, Zappe gets the snap and heaves a ball that is several yards short. The pass is batted down, and the Dome erupts, but the officials blow their whistles, and it seems that there’s still time on the clock. One last chance for Zappe to enter the Hilltoppers history books. Same formation for both teams, same laundry list of things that need to go right for WKU. Zappe gets the snap and chunks it a bit farther than previously, only this time, it isn’t batted down. It’s fittingly picked off by Jahmal Sam to end the game.
The stadium erupts in cheers. The players don't head to the sideline to celebrate with their teammates, they head to the student section to celebrate and party with the fans. A team that just 2 years ago finished 4-8 stood on top of the conference. A team that didn’t exist 12 years ago had a city celebrating them like they never had before. A trophy that had never seen the bright lights of the Alamodome until that day was won. For the first time in school history, the Roadrunners could say that they were champions.
As big of a game that was, it wasn’t the end of the season for the Roadrunners. A year full of firsts had to be capped off with the last first in program history: a bowl win. In 10 years, UTSA had been bowl eligible 3 times and appeared in 2, losing both. The opportunity to win the program’s first bowl game came in mid-December against San Diego State in the Tropical Smoothie Café Bowl in Frisco, Texas. The Aztecs were coming off a surprising loss in the Mountain West Championship game to Utah State and had a quarterback that was preparing to play his last collegiate game before he would likely hang up the cleats. On the UTSA sideline, the big story was who wouldn't be participating in the bowl game. Big-time names either opted out to prepare for the NFL Draft or just weren't playing, no name bigger than Sincere McCormick who many expected to opt-out in the first place. While McCormick was the biggest name on offense not playing, there were plenty of big names on the defensive side of the ball who made the championship game their last in the blue and orange, Tariq Woolen and Lorenzo Dantzler being some of the bigger names. This game provided Roadrunner nation to see what some of the younger players could do against a nationally ranked opponent who many compared UTSA to all year.
Without McCormick, senior running back Brendan Brady and the passing attack would look to carry the ‘Runners to victory. The Birds seemed to have no trouble getting into a grove, scoring on their first possession with ease, with big plays from the now-feature back, Brenden Brady. The game seemed to be a back-and-forth affair with each defense flexing their muscles on key plays throughout. The x-factor in this game however was Jesse Matthews for the Aztecs. The former walk-on lit up the UTSA corners to a tune of 11 catches for 175 yards and 2 touchdowns. This combined with senior quarterback Lucas Johnson playing mistake-free football pushed the short-handed Roadrunners to their limits. In one of the few games where Frank Harris was outplayed, the ‘Runners were just outlasted, and the first bowl victory would have to wait as the Aztecs of SDSU walked away with a win, 38-24. The magical season for the ‘Runners would come to an end in the same Metroplex that the perfect season ended in.
With this season, it seems that the expectations for UTSA are at an all-time high heading into 2022. 12-2 is a tough ask of any team, but with the vast majority of offensive starters returning and some key defensive players returning for another ride, a conference championship game appearance shouldn't be out of the realm of possibilities. It might just be the expectation going forward for the final season of CUSA Football the city of San Antonio will see. That now begs the question though, what will next year’s team look like?
Out of the 11 offensive starters for UTSA this past season, Leroy Watson (TE), Sincere McCormick (RB), and Spencer Burford (LT) have declared for the draft. Some other names that won’t be in the blue and orange next year are tight end Myles Benning, offensive lineman Jalyn Galmore, and running back Brenden Brady. While those are some big names, it’s possible to assume that UTSA will retain 80% of its starting offensive line and the trio of receivers that gave defensive coordinators trouble all season. Oscar Cardenas will also be back after having a breakout 2021 season. Oh, Frank Harris is also back which is the biggest factor heading into next season. Some bad news? Offensive coordinator Barry Lunney interviewed and accepted the job to become the offensive coordinator at Illinois. Replacing him will be Matt Mattox and Will Stein who will be acting as co-offensive coordinators, something that UTSA implemented on the defensive side of the ball this past season. My biggest question is, “Who is going to replace the starters?”. I feel like the tight end position should be obvious. Oscar Cardenas caught arguably the biggest play in Roadrunner history and made several big catches throughout the season. With a little more involvement, he can become a fourth pass-catching threat for Frank Harris to utilize. Replacing Burford and McCormick, two players who will likely hear their names called in the April draft is a much taller task.
In the bowl game, the backup left tackle was Jalyn Galmore who has already announced that he has played his final game for UTSA. Who do the Roadrunners turn to now at left tackle? There are a few options coming from players that are either on the roster or incoming recruits. Sophomore lineman Demetris Allen is the first name that comes to mind. In his two years at UTSA, he’s racked up 3 starts including one at left tackle this year against Middle Tennessee. His experience could favor him in taking over for Burford. You can look also at Makai Hart who we will likely see returning for his super senior year after starting at right tackle this year or freshman Frankie Martinez, a local San Antonio kid who was the backup right tackle for the bowl game. Some wildcard names to throw out there are Ben Rios and Deandre Marshall, two teammates at San Antonio Central Catholic who are a part of the 2022 recruiting class.
The taller order on offense is replacing a two-time CUSA Offensive Player of the Year in Sincere McCormick, especially since his backup that was so effective, Brenden Brady, also announced that he would not use his final year of eligibility. It also seems as though BJ Daniels will be gone after he just finished up his super senior season leaving UTSA without its top 3 running backs from this season. UTSA has several players returning to the running back room, but none with a lot of experience. Kaedric Cobbs got a few touches in his true freshman year but didn’t get a single carry as a sophomore. The other 4 running backs on the roster haven't carried the ball a single time for UTSA. The favorite for the job might just be arriving on campus this spring. It seemed that as soon as Sincere McCormick announced he was declaring for the draft, Tye Edwards, a running back from Hutchinson Community College in Kansas announced that he had received an offer from the Roadrunners. He shortly committed to the ‘Runners over schools like Maryland and Oregon and after watching his tape, a collective sigh of relief came from the fan base. Edwards is coming from a JUCO but coming out of high school he had offers to programs like Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M, and Oregon amongst others. It looks like he’ll be one of the front runners for the starting job starting in the spring. I expect him to compete with guys like Kaedric Cobbs and De’Anthony Lewis for the nod.
The defensive side of the ball is an even bigger question mark. Several key players have already announced that they would be forgoing their final year(s) of eligibility to start preparing for the draft. Lorenzo Dantzler and Tariq Woolen were names that I mentioned earlier, but both starting outside linebackers, Charles Wiley and Clarence Hicks, also declared after monster seasons this year. Others leaving include Jaylon Haynes, DeQuarius Henry, and Antonio Parks, all of whom were either starters or key contributors on the defense. As it stands, it seems like a total of 5 starters will be returning. One of the bright sides to this is that the defense, especially the front 7, was extremely deep and only the loss of Henry will affect that going into next season. Look for Trumane Bell to replace Dantzler at defensive end after recording 5 sacks this year as a backup and Asyrus Simon to add some production as well after a solid sophomore campaign. Christian Clayton and Brandon Matterson backed up Jaylon Haynes during the bowl game and both players look like they’ll be back for another season, so there are options there. Replacing the outside linebackers will be the toughest ask. Charles Wiley and Clarence Hicks were the key to the pass rush this past season and have both declared for the draft. Replacing them seems relatively easy as hybrid linebacker/safety Dadrian Taylor announced he would be returning for his super senior season after being one of the best players all-around on the team last year. Replacing the other side could be a bigger question mark. Charles Wiley and DeQuarius Henry are both gone. Their backup in the bowl game was JUCO transfer Jimmori Robinson so he’ll likely be next up on the depth chart for next season. We’ll see how things play out in the spring.
Replacing safety Antonio Parks should also come somewhat easy for the ‘Runners. Jahmal Sam should slide in easily to the safety position opposite of Rashad Wisdom. The final task that Coach Traylor and co. need to focus on is replacing Tariq Woolen who will likely be the first Roadrunner to hear his name called in April. It seemed as though the search for his successor would continue as top-rated JUCO corner Zah Frazier surprisingly committed to the University of Kentucky over the likes of Mississippi State and UTSA. Roadrunner fans were proven to be spoiled due to the frustration caused by missing out on such a highly sought-after player. It turns out that the frustration wasn’t needed. A few weeks later, Frazier announced that he was decommitting and would be attending another university. Soon after, he announced his commitment to UTSA, and all was right in the world. Frazier will likely be the favorite to replace Woolen as the other starting outside cornerback.
2021 was a year of crushing expectations. Heading into 2022 and beyond, UTSA is no longer the sleeping giant. Expectations will be big and a chance to be the premier G5 school will be up for grabs. Are the Roadrunners up for the challenge? September 3rd can’t get here fast enough. It’s officially 226 until the day before the day before. See you next year, Roadrunner nation. To quote our coach, “God Bless and Birds up”.