SAN ANTONIO – Payback is always tough when you're on the receiving end, as the UTSA Roadrunners undoubtedly would attest after a 31-29 loss to Southern Miss in their Conference USA opener Saturday.
Trounced by UTSA on the same field last year, the Golden Eagles jumped on the Roadrunners early and never relented before a crowd of 23,517 at the Alamodome.
UTSA, which beat the Golden Eagles 55-32 last season, dropped to 3-1. USM improved to 3-2 overall and 1-1 in conference play. The Roadrunners play North Texas in a C-USA game next Saturday in Denton.
UTSA scored on a 24-yard pass from Dalton Sturm to Marquez McNair to cut USM’s lead to 31-29 with 48 seconds left, but Sturm’s conversion pass to Josh Stewart fell incomplete in the end zone.
"I thought our team was resilient and competed all 60 minutes of the football game," UTSA coach Frank Wilson said. "But I also speak the truth to them, and we didn't do the things necessary to have victory today. We did not win at the line of scrimmage offensively, defensively, and we probably had our least best performance from a special-teams standpoint this year.
"I thought we were flat from go, the very first series, and I'll have to do a better job of getting this team motivated and getting their antennas up. We knew this was a quality opponent, and evidently something was left out there, and we did not play the way we're capable of playing, unfortunately."
USM led 28-13 with 13:20 remaining, but the Roadrunners closed the gap to 28-20 on a 28-yard pass from Sturm to McNair with 9:48 left. Jared Sackett kicked the extra-point to make it a one-score game. The TD stopped a run of 21 unanswered points by the Golden Eagles.
The Roadrunners drew closer after defensive end Eric Banks knocked the ball loose from USM quarterback Keon Howard and tackle Baylen Baker recovered at the Golden Eagles' 32. Sackett kicked a 44-yard field goal four plays later, cutting USM's lead to 28-23 with 7:33 remaining.
Howard started for Kwadra Griggs, who was injured in USM's loss to North Texas last week. Howard kept the UTSA defense on its heels, completing 15 of 20 passes for 212 yards and three TDs.
Undaunted by the Roadrunners' late surge, the Golden Eagles mounted a 12-play, 69-yard drive that ended with Parker Shaunfield's 24-yard field goal with 1:56 left. UTSA responded with an impressive drive of its own, going 53 yards in five plays and taking only 1:08 to pull within two on Sturm's 24-yard strike to McNair.
Sturm completed 27 of 43 passes for a career-high 367 yards to go with three TDs. His 43 attempts also were a career high and his 27 completions tied his career best.
The Golden Eagles played like the Roadrunners did last year, when UTSA outgained them 339-179 on the ground. Jalen Rhodes, who led all rushers with 165 yards in last season's game, was held to 28 on 14 carries Saturday night. He had a career-best 174 yards in the Roadrunners' 44-14 rout of Texas State two weeks ago. UTSA had a bye last week.
Tyrell Clay was the Roadrunners' leading rusher Saturday night, gaining 59 yards on nine carries.They edged the Golden Eagles 469-458 in total offensive yardage, but USM finished with a decisive 246-102 edge on the ground. UTSA had allowed an average of only 207 yards of total offense in its first three games. The Roadrunners had held their last five opponents to less than 300 yards, and their last two to less than 200.
But Saturday was a different story.
"We came out flat," senior safety Nate Gaines said. "They threw a lot of different things that we had seen prior to this game, and it really starts with our adjustments. We went to the sideline, made our corrections. But, I mean, at the end of the day, they were the more physical team, not just on the line. I mean, through the line, through the whole secondary. We just needed to step up our game."
UTSA led 13-7 at the half, but Thomas threw touchdown passes of 20 yards to Korey Robertson and 48 yards to Quez Watkins to put USM ahead 21-13 after three quarters.
The Golden Eagles stunned the Roadrunners for another score when Ito Smith broke loose up the middle for an 89-yard TD with 13:20 remaining. Smith’s scintillating run came on a first-down play following a second consecutive three-and-out by UTSA. Smith's TD is the longest play from scrimmage against the Roadrunners in program history.
Smith slashed through and around the Roadrunners' defense for 178 yards and one TD on only 17 carries (10.5 average).
UTSA took a 3-0 lead on the game’s first possession, ending a 10-play, 56-yard drive with a 38-yard field goal by Sackett.
USM stormed back on the ensuing possession when Howard hit tight end Jay’Shaw Washington for a 32-yard TD. Shaunfield's extra point gave the Golden Eagles a 7-3 lead with 9:34 left in the first quarter. Howard’s scoring pass capped a four-play, 64-yard march.
USM’s lead stood until Sturm connected with Stewart for a 21-yard TD with 2:57 left in the half. After forcing the Golden Eagles to punt on their next possession, the Roadrunners raised their lead to 13-7 on a 40-yard field goal by Sackett with 32 seconds remaining until intermission.
UTSA outgained USM 252-153 in total offensive yardage in the first half, getting 67 rushing and 185 rushing. Clay led the ground game with 49 yards on six carries (8.2 average), and Sturm completed 13 of 23 passes for 185 yards and one TD.
The Golden Eagles got 104 yards rushing on only 12 attempts in the first half, but had only 49 yards rushing. Allenzae Staggers got all 49 yards on one carry.
Final: Southern Miss 31, UTSA 29
Tonight's attendance: 23,517
Southern Miss 31, UTSA 29
Fourth quarter, 0:48: Dalton Sturm connects with Marquez McNair for 24-yard TD. Two-point conversion pass from Sturm to Josh Stewart falls incomplete in the end zone.
Southern Miss 31, UTSA 23
Fourth quarter, 1:56: Parker Shaunfield kicks 24-yard field goal to give the Golden Eagles a little breathing room.
Southern Miss 28, UTSA 23
Fourth quarter, 7:33: Jared Sackett kicks a 44-yard field goal four plays after Baylen Baker recovers a fumble at the USM 32.
Southern Miss 28, UTSA 20
Fourth quarter, 9:48: The Roadrunners trim the Golden Eagles' lead to eight on a 28-yard pass from Sturm to McNair and PAT by Sackett. The TD ends a run of 21 unanswered USM points.
Southern Miss 28, UTSA 13
Fourth quarter, 13:20: Golden Eagles running back Ito Smith goes up the middle for an 89-yard TD on first down following another three-and-out by the Roadrunners. Shaunfield kicks his fourth PAT of the game. USM has scored 21 unanswered points after trailing 13-7.
End of third quarter: Southern Miss 21, UTSA 13
Southern Miss 21, UTSA 13
Third quarter: 1:05: Keon Howard hits Quez Watkins for a 48-yard TD one play after forcing the Roadrunners into a three-and-out. Shaunfield adds the PAT.
Southern Miss 14, UTSA 13
Third quarter, 2:52: The Golden Eagles regain the lead on a 20-yard pass from Howard to wide receiver to Korey Robertson. Shaunfield adds the extra point. The TD comes four plays after Curtis Mikell intercepts a Sturm pass in the USM end zone, and returns the pick 61 yards to the UTSA 39.
First-half notes: UTSA outgained Southern Miss 252-153 in total offensive yardage, getting 67 yardss rushing and 185 passing. Tyrell Clay led the Roadrunners' ground game with 49 yards on six carries (8.2 average). Dalton Sturm completed 13 of 23 passes for 185 yards and one TD, a 21-yard strike to wide receiver Josh Stewart. Greg Campbell Jr. was UTSA's top receiver with five catches for 57 yards . . . The Roadrunners' defense was paced by La'Kel Bass and Josiah Tauaefa, who had four and three tackles, respectively. UTSA held USM to 49 yards passing . . . Allenzae Staggers led the Golden Eagles' running game with 49 yards on only one carry. Keon Howard hit 4 of 8 passes for 49 yards and one TD, a 32-yarder to Jay'Shaw Washington.
Halftime: UTSA 13, Southern Miss 7
UTSA 13, Southern Miss 7
Second quarter, 0:32: Sackett kicks a 40-yard field goal to extend the Roadrunners' lead
UTSA 10, Southern Miss 7
Second quarter, 2:57: The Roadrunners regain the lead on a 21-yard pass from Sturm to Stewart. Sackett adds the PAT. The score caps an 11-play, 92-yard drive that consumes 4:56. The key play in the march is a 26-yard run by Sturm on a quarterback draw, moving UTSA from the USM 36 to the 10.
End of first quarter: Southern Miss 7, UTSA 3
Southern Miss 7, UTSA 3
First quarter, 9:34: The Golden Eagles take the lead on a 32-yard pass from Howard to tight end Jay'Shawn Washington. The TD strike ends a four-play, 64-yard march that consumes only 1:28. The score comes on the possession after UTSA's game-opening field goal. Smith gained 20 and 12 yards on the two plays before Howard's TD pass.
UTSA 3, Southern Miss 0
First quarter, 11:02: Sackett kicks a 38-yard field goal, capping a 10-play, 56-yard drive on the first possession of the game.
UTSA GAMEDAY: Roadrunners host Southern Miss in C-USA opener
Southern Miss (2-2, 0-1) vs. UTSA (3-0)
When, where: Saturday, 6 p.m., Alamodome
Series history: UTSA leads 2-1
Last meeting: UTSA 55, Southern Miss 32, Oct. 8, 2016, Alamodome
Last week: UTSA had an open date; North Texas 43, Southern Miss 28, Hattiesburg, Miss.
Notable: The Roadrunners haven’t been 4-0 since they started the 2012 season 5-0.
SAN ANTONIO – In UTSA football coach Frank Wilson’s world, there are no big games. There is only the next game – and that’s the only thing that matters to Wilson and his players.
To hear them tell it, their conference opener against Southern Miss on Saturday is no bigger than any other game on their schedule.
“That’s basically our mantra,” senior wide receiver Josh Stewart said this week. “We try to go out there and just play as hard as we can. We don’t focus on previous weeks. The game that’s coming up, focus on going 1-0. That’s the best we can do.”
For Wilson, it’s always about the next game.
“It’s an opportunity to compete,” he said, looking ahead to the clash with USM. “The opportunity that presents itself is what has our guys so excited about playing. And then on top of it, it is the conference opener.
“It’s for keeps. This one counts, like every one does. But it’s the most important because it’s the next one. So, four is the number (as in 4-0) we’re trying to attain right now.”
Still, Wilson acknowledged that Saturday’s game is a pivotal one.
“It’s the most important game of the year,” Wilson said. “It’s a big game for us. Slates are clean. This is our goal. It comes into scope here because our goal is to win a conference championship, to win the West (Division). The only way you can do that is to take care of the first one.
“What’s behind us is behind us. What’s ahead of us is there, but what’s current is most important because we’ve got to have this one. It will be big for us to play well on Saturday.”
UTSA (3-0) hasn’t played since piling up a school-record 569 yards of total offense in a 44-14 rout of Texas State two weeks ago in San Marcos. The Roadrunners controlled both sides of the line, holding the Bobcats to a paltry 198 yards.
UTSA was especially dominant in the second half, outgaining the Bobcats 257-45 and holding them to only 0.7 yards per rushing attempt. Texas State finished with only 37 yards rushing. The Roadrunners have held their last five opponents to less than 300 yards, and their last two to less than 200.
USM (2-2) is coming off a 43-28 home loss to North Texas in its C-USA opener last week. The Golden Eagles opened the season with a 24-17 loss to Kentucky, but bounced back with back-to-back wins against Southern (45-0) and ULM (28-17). UTSA beat Southern 51-17 on Sept. 16 at the Alamodome.
The Roadrunners lead the series against USM 2-1 and crushed the Golden Eagles 55-32 last year at the Alamodome. Jalen Rhodes (165) and Jarveon Williams (122) combined for 287 of UTSA’s 339 yards on the ground.
Williams is now on the Cincinnati Bengals’ practice squad, but Rhodes has looked impressive in the first three games of his junior season. He has rushed 338 yards on 45 carries (7.5 average) and had a career-best 174 yards in the victory against Texas State.
While UTSA has an edge statistically, Stewart echoed what his teammates have said all week: The Roadrunners have no illusions about what they’ll face Saturday.
“Southern Miss is a great football team,” Stewart said. “They’re going to come in with their hair on fire. They’ll be ready to play, but so will we, so we’re going to come out and we’re going to play hard.”
USM’s offense is no slouch itself, ranking third among C-USA teams with an average of 447.5 yards per game. The Golden Eagles are second in the conference in total defense (316.0).
Ito Smith is USM’s top rusher with 435 yards and four touchdowns. Kwadra Griggs has passed for 951 yards and eight TDs, and has thrown only one interception in 123 attempts.
The Golden Eagles face a stern test against a UTSA defense that has been stellar in the first three games, allowing an average of only 207 yards of total offense. That ranks second behind Michigan (203.3) in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Led by all-conference sophomore linebacker Josiah Tauaefa, the Roadrunners lead C-USA in nine different statistical categories. They rank No. 1 in the FBS for passing yards allowed (121.0), team passing-efficiency defense (73.87), first-down defense (41) and third-down conversion defense (0.17). The unit is coordinated by Pete Golding, who coached the USM safeties in 2014 and 2015.
Tauaefa was named C-USA co-Defensive Player of the Week after shining against Texas State. He finished with five tackles, one quarterback pressure, one pass breakup and a 22-yard fumble return for a TD.
Senior safety Nate Gaines talked about the Roadrunners’ mentality going into the conference opener.
“Our mindset is what it’s always been,” Gaines said. “Just take one step at a time, one day at a time. Huge game for us because it is the next one.”
Obviously, the Roadrunners have taken Wilson’s next-game credo to heart.
“We don’t get up for any game,” senior wide receiver Brady Jones said. “That’s something our coaches have been really good at. The next game is the most important game. We’re just trying to get to 1-0 every Saturday.”