UTSA football wins thrilling season opener, secures biggest win in program history

‘Runners triumph 37-30 on final play of game


Zakhari Franklin turns the corner and heads upfield after making a catch on Saturday night. Franklin went for a career high 155 yards on 10 catches with a touchdown in the victory. Jamal Colley/UTSA Athletics

Ryder Martin, Sports Editor

UTSA football (1-0) started their season on the road in Champaign, IL on Sept. 4, facing the University of Illinois Fighting Illini (1-1). The game was the first against a Big 10 Conference opponent in program history, and the Roadrunners were up to the challenge. Bolstered by standout performances from quarterback Frank Harris and wide receiver Zakhari Franklin, alongside timely stops by the defense, UTSA marched into Illinois and walked away with a 37-30 victory, their second ever over a power five opponent. 

The first quarter started slowly, with each team’s first two drives ending in punts. On UTSA’s third drive, however, the offense got in gear. Backed up on their own six, the ‘Runners went 94 yards on 13 plays with Harris eventually finding the end zone on an option keeper and took the first lead of the game 7-0. After the defense forced a three and out, the offense drove right back down the field. Brenden Brady finished with a touchdown run from seven yards out, doubling the lead to 14-0 and quieting the home crowd. Illinois responded with a quick touchdown punctuated by a blown coverage by the UTSA defense off of play action. Illinois quarterback Artur Sitkowski found a wide-open receiver for the touchdown, drawing them to 14-7. UTSA reached the red zone on their next drive, but a back-shoulder fade from Harris to Franklin on third down was just out of bounds. The ‘Runners settled for a field goal to take a ten-point lead. The Illini offense began to find their rhythm and open up massive holes for the run game and quickly entered the red zone. Another blown coverage off of play action led to a walk-in touchdown and Illinois drew back within three. A quick three and out from the UTSA offense had the ‘Runners needing a stop to keep the lead heading into halftime. Illinois muffed the ensuing punt and UTSA recovered inside the Illinois 30. Harris once again just missed Franklin on a back-shoulder fade in the end zone, and UTSA settled for another field goal to go up 20-14 at the half. 

The UTSA defense started the second half by shutting down the Illini offense and forcing a quick punt. On UTSA’s first drive of the half, Harris fumbled an option exchange and Illinois recovered the ball on the UTSA 36. The UTSA defense responded, forcing the Illini to settle for a field goal, holding onto a 20-17 lead. Later the UTSA offense put a drive together as Harris hit Joshua Cephus for a 37-yard gain, first and goal UTSA. Unfortunately, a series of bad snaps killed the drive for UTSA, who settled for a field goal restoring their six-point edge. 

Beginning the fourth quarter, Illinois kicked a field goal to draw within three at 23-20. The ‘Runners responded with a 75-yard touchdown drive, as Harris found De’Corian Clark deep for 43 yards. Two plays later, hooked up with Franklin on a bubble screen, who turned on the jets and streaked into the endzone giving UTSA a 10-point lead. Aided by another blown coverage off of play action, Illinois quickly struck back to draw it to 30-27 with ten minutes on the clock. After struggling to run the ball most of the night, UTSA went on a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that included nine run plays, eating five minutes of game clock. The drive was finished off by Brady, who broke through a massive hole in the Illinois defensive front and took it 33 yards for his second touchdown of the game.

This drive was crucial in the final outcome of the game.

 “You’ve got to keep chipping away, you just got to keep taking their will from them. It’s what we’re about, that’s who we are, we’re very committed to running the ball down your throat and then throwing the thing over your head,” Coach Traylor said.

After working their way into the red zone, the Illini were forced to kick a field goal to cut the lead to seven with under two minutes to go. After three straight UTSA runs to burn the Illini’s timeouts, Coach Traylor turned things over to his defense. Facing fourth and 25 from the UTSA 30 with two seconds left on the clock, Sitkowski threw up a prayer into the end zone, finding an Illini wide receiver just out of bounds and UTSA held on for the 37-30 victory. 

Harris had arguably one of his best games as a ‘Runner, completing 62.5% of his passes for 280 yards and a touchdown through the air, while also contributing 32 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Franklin had a breakthrough game, securing 10 catches for 155 yards and a touchdown. Preseason All-American running back Sincere McCormick had a quiet game by his standards, but still amassed 117 yards on 31 carries. The UTSA offense outgained Illinois by a 496 to 395 margin.

UTSA football will be back in action for their home opener on Saturday, Sept. 11, at 5 pm, in the Alamodome against the Lamar University Cardinals (1-0). Coach Traylor emphasized the need for a big crowd for the game. 

 “The Alamodome’s got to be rocking. We’ve got a great great football team, we’ve got some great local kids that are good, good humans and we need that Alamodome full so those kids can see how much San Antonio loves their players,” Coach Traylor said.