It wasn't particularly pretty, but UIW made enough big plays to beat Texas College 19-12 in Larry Kennan's debut as the Cardinals' coach Saturday nght at Benson Stadium.
"A win is a win," said Kennan, who hadn't coached in a college game since he was head coach at Lamar in 1981. "At the end of the season, they don't say, 'Was it close or did you play bad, but did you win?' You count the W's."
The Cards won despite losing three of seven fumbles and having two extra-point kicks blocked.
New Orleans Saints owner Larry Benson and his wife, Gayle, the UIW football program's biggest benefactors, were among the 4,522 who watched the Cards' season opener.
Benson went into the UIW locker room after the game and spoke to the team briefly.
"I told them that the opportunity is there," Benson said. "They just made a few mistakes tonight that they shouldn't and they can correct. With that in mind, let's go on and win the championship. That's what we're fighting for."
UIW is playing its last season as a Division II school in the Lone Star Conference, and will jump to the Southland Conference at the beginning of the 2013-14 school year. The SLC competes in the NCAA's Football Championship Subdivision, formerly Division I-AA.
Kennan, 68, hadn't coached for a team since he was offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots in 1997. He was winding up his 12th year as executive director of the NFL Coaches Association last December when he was hired to succeed Mike Santiago as UIW coach.
"Coaching is what I love doing," Kennan said. "I enjoy the whole process."
Rios, Rhodes set pace for UIW offense
The loss was the 13th in a row for Texas College, an NAIA school located in Tyler, but the Steers didn't play like a team on a losing streak.
"They were a better team than we'd seen on video," Kennan said. "A lot better. They played really, really well. They looked so much better than they had the week before. I think it took our guys by surprise. If we don't throw three or four long passes, we'd about gotten minus yardage on offense."
Texas College lost to St. Francis, Ind., 46-10 in its season opener last week.
UIW senior running back Trent Rios scored two TDs on runs of 7 and 11 yards and senior quarterback Zach Rhodes completed 12 of 18 passes, with no interceptions, for 205 yards. Rhodes, a New Braunfels High School graduate, played at SMU and Louisiana-Monroe before transferring to UIW this summer.
"I thought Zach did fine," Benson said. "There were a couple of plays that I'd the quarterback to make differently, but he did what he did and was all right."
Freshman quarterback Taylor Woods also saw considerable playing time, completing his only two passing attempts for 45 yards.
"I feel good about both of our quarterbacks," Kennan said. "They're both going to be very good for us."
Rhodes hadn't played since his junior season at Louisiana-Monroe in 2010.
"It felt good to get back out there and get back in the groove," Rhodes said. "I had to knock the rust off, but it felt good."
Starting cornerback Avery sparkles at wide receiver
Former Reagan High School standout Marcus Wright, who transferred to UIW this summer after graduating from Georgia Tech, scored the Cards' last TD on a 1-yard run. Wright finished with 44 yards on 13 carries.
"I felt good," Wright said.
UIW outgained the Steers 344-256 in total offensive yardage, finishing with 94 yards rushing and 250 passing.
The Cards took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter on Rios' 7-yard run. His score came one play after Rhodes hit Devan Avery, who starts at cornerback, for a 48-yard completion. Avery finished with two catches for 99 yards.
"I haven't played offense since high school, but it's my senior year so I'm willing to help out anywhere," Avery said. "Whatever it takes to win."
Texas College cut the lead to 7-6 in the second quarter, but the Steers missed the extra point.
The teams each scored a TD in the third quarter, and both missed extra points. UIW led 13-12 until Wright scored his TD.
UIW plays Sam Houston at 7 p.m. next Saturday in Huntsville. The Bearkats lost in the FCS title game last year.