After a stirring season-opening win against the Nebraska Cornhuskers in Week 0, the Illinois Fighting Illini stay home for a non-conference tilt with the UTSA Roadrunners this Saturday night at Memorial Stadium. It’ll be the season debut for UTSA and the first-ever meeting between the two schools.
The University of Texas at San Antonio football program was formed in 2011 under the stewardship of former Miami Hurricanes head coach Larry Coker. He resigned in 2016 after guiding UTSA through the transition from FBS Independent to WAC to Conference USA. Frank Wilson took over the program from there and led the Roadrunners to their first bowl game, the 2016 New Mexico Bowl.
Former Arkansas running backs coach Jeff Traylor was named UTSA’s new head coach in December 2019. The Roadrunners finished 7-5 in Traylor’s first season, losing to Louisiana in the SERVPRO First Responders Bowl.
This program seems to be trending upward and enters 2021 picked to finish second in Conference USA West, behind defending league champ Alabama-Birmingham. In fact, this could be the best team UTSA has ever fielded, which I bring up for no reason whatsoever:
This is a side bar, but how/why do we ALWAYS seem to end up with these types of mid-major non-cons?— Trevor Vallese (@TVallese) August 30, 2021
From 2012ish to now we’ve had: La Tech at their best, WKU at their best, MTSU at their best, WMU at their best, USF at their best, EMU at their best… I could go on lol https://t.co/21xwysDTn4
The Roadrunners’ trip to Champaign will mark their first matchup with a Big Ten opponent.
Here’s a glimpse at Jeff Traylor’s team.
The Roadrunners return many key playmakers on an offensive unit that gained 402.8 yards per game last season (48th nationally), including 215.4 ypg on the ground (19th nationally).
Redshirt senior Frank Harris will lead the Roadrunners at QB again this season. An honorable mention All-Conference USA selection in 2020, Harris played in 11 contests and drew 10 starts for UTSA. The lefty set the program’s single-season standard by completing 63.6% (159-250) of his passes for 1,630 yards and 12 TDs while also totaling 95 rushing attempts for 528 yards (5.6 yards per attempt) and nine scores.
Harris put up one of his best collegiate games in the First Responders Bowl, finishing with 208 yards passing, 91 yards rushing, and three total touchdowns. He begins this season on the Manning and Davey O’Brien Award watch lists.
The ‘Runners leading — uh, runner — is also — uh, running it back — in 2021. Sincere McCormick rushed for 1,467 yards (only Iowa State’s Breece Hall finished with more) on 249 attempts (5.9 yds/carry) with 11 TDs, was crowned Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year and finished as a semifinalist for the Doak Walker Award last season. The 5-foot-9, 205-pound junior holds UTSA’s single-game record for rushing yards (251) and is the also the program’s all-time yardage leader (2,450). McCormick is also a useful pass-catcher, recording 44 career receptions for 325 yards.
Wide receiver Zakhari Franklin is on the preseason Biletnikoff Award watch list. The 6-foot-1 speedster, who doubles as a punt returner, logged four 100-yard receiving games in 2020, while also setting the UTSA single-season receiving mark with 694 yards. Junior receiver Joshua Cephus caught 58 balls for 547 yards and five TDs last year.
As if there weren’t enough weapons on offense — including the QB himself — UTSA has a monstrous 6-foot-5, 275-pound tight end in Leroy Watson, who hauled in 14 passes for 176 yards.
And what would a Texas-based team be without some beef? UTSA averages 321 pounds along the offensive line, which is anchored by senior center Ahofitu Maka and bookended by tackles Makai Hart and Spencer Burford.
UTSA deploys a 3-4 scheme, with senior nose Jaylon Haynes leading the Roadrunners up front. The Honorable Mention All-Conference selection recorded six tackles for loss and four sacks in just nine games in 2020.
The linebacking corps is the strength of this UTSA defense. Outside backers Charles Wiley and Clarence Hicks combined for 89 tackles and 14.5 TFLs last season. Inside, Jamal Ligon was named to the C-USA All Freshman Team after tallying 72 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, four sacks, two forced fumbles, and a pair of fumble recoveries. JUCO transfer Trevor Harmanson registered 73 total tackles, a team-high seven quarterback hurries, three pass breakups and one INT.
Safety Rashad Wisdom starred as a sophomore, leading the Roadrunners in tackles (95) and finishing tied for first in Conference USA with 4 interceptions. Wisdom was named to the preseason Bednarik and Thorpe Award watch lists.
While the Roadrunners were respectable against the pass in 2020 (208.6 ypg), their run defense was leaky at times, allowing opponents 162.1 ypg on the ground. They’ll be tasked with stopping the likes of Mike Epstein, Chase Brown and Reggie Love. Like the “Lovieball” Illini, UTSA is very active around the ball and will try to force plenty of takeaways.
Senior Hunter Duplessis will once again handle the placekicking duties this season. The San Antonio native connected on 17-of-20 field goals and 40-of-41 extra points and was a Groza Award semifinalist.
While the praise for Blake Hayes is definitely well-deserved, UTSA boasts an impressive Aussie punter of their own. Lucas Dean (pictured above) is a preseason second-team All-American and finished last season with an average of 46 yards per punt (for context, Hayes finished at 43.8). He received the C-USA Special Teams Player of the Year award for his efforts.
What To Expect
The Fighting Illini enter this game as a 6-point home favorite, and will have a primetime BTN audience Saturday evening. While this has potential to be a “trap” game (see Eastern Michigan in 2019), Illinois executed a very competent gameplan against a more-talented Nebraska team. While you absolutely should bask in the satisfaction of that win, I don’t believe Bret Bielema will allow the Illini to become too overconfident. UTSA is a veteran squad with lots of offensive talent and won’t be intimidated by playing on the larger stage.
I’m looking forward to an exciting game against another up-and-coming Group of Five opponent. I’m no oracle, but I foresee a team wearing orange & blue winning this game. Call me crazy.