UTSA win West division title on Harris’ last second TD pass to Cardenas


Ellyson Ortega

Hunter Duplessis celebrates with the fans following UTSA’s last-second come from behind victory over UAB. Duplessis drilled field goals from 51 and 49 yards during the game and has now converted 20 of the 25 field goals he has attempted this season.

Ryder Martin, Sports Editor

It wasn’t going to be easy. Frank Harris and the UTSA offense needed to go 77 yards and score a touchdown in 1:06 with no timeouts left in order to stay undefeated and win the Conference USA West Division title. Adversity is nothing new for this UTSA roster, however, and Harris specifically has had to overcome numerous injuries during his time at UTSA in order to emerge as the stalwart quarterback of this team. With the odds stacked against them, the ‘Runners came through when it mattered most. Marching down the field and winning the game, Harris found tight end Oscar Cardenas in the back of the end zone for the game-winning touchdown with only three seconds remaining in the game, sealing a thrilling 34-31 come from behind victory for the No. 22 UTSA Roadrunners (11-0, 7-0 C-USA) over the UAB Blazers (7-4, 5-2 C-USA). Despite entering the game undefeated, a loss against the Blazers would’ve seen UAB move ahead of the ‘Runners in the conference standings and left UTSA not in control of their own destiny regarding qualification for the conference championship game. 

UAB got the first crack on offense in the first quarter and struck fast. On just the second play from scrimmage, quarterback Dylan Hopkins took the snap and after faking the handoff, hung in the pocket with all day to throw, eventually launching a deep ball to wide receiver Tre Shropshire who caught it in stride and simply outran every ‘Runner into the end zone for a quick 0-7 lead. The UTSA offense’s first drive came up empty when Harris was sacked on third down, but punter Lucas Dean gave the team a jolt by launching a school record 73-yard punt to the UAB 12, completely flipping the field. The UTSA defense stabilized on UAB’s second drive and aided by an offensive pass interference call, kept them off the scoreboard. On the ensuing UTSA drive, the offense got to work. Sincere McCormick and Harris gashed the UAB defense on multiple runs to move UTSA down into the red zone and Harris finished the drive off from there. Harris dropped back facing a third and four and lofting a back-shoulder fade into the end zone for his go-to big play receiver Zakhari Franklin to work his magic. Franklin located the football and while being interfered with, reached out with one hand to snag the ball out of the air for a touchdown as UTSA tied the game at seven. 

Zakhari Franklin celebrates in the end zone after scoring on a 54-yard catch and run early in the second half of Saturday’s game against UAB. Franklin scored twice against UAB, moving him into sole possession of the UTSA single season record for receiving touchdowns with 10 on the year. (Ellyson Ortega)

It wouldn’t last, though, as late in the first quarter Hopkins found Shropshire again for a 40-yard touchdown pass as the UTSA secondary struggled to contain Shropshire’s speed. UTSA answered in kind, however. The offense engaged in a long bruising drive, punctuated by a couple of connections between Harris and wide receiver De’Corian Clark for big gains. McCormick eventually finished off the drive with a touchdown run from eight yards out to level the game at 14. Previously having dissected UTSA through the air, UAB then exerted their will on the ground, running the ball eight straight times for 75 yards as Hopkins kept it himself on a play action roll out, running it into the end zone for an eight-yard touchdown as UAB retook the lead 14-21. 

A long pass on the next drive from Harris to wide receiver Joshua Cephus for 38 yards had the ‘Runners in business but after crossing into UTSA territory, the offense stalled and they had to settle for a long 51-yard field goal attempt. Hunter Duplessis came on and tied his career long by drilling it through the uprights as UTSA closed the gap to 17-21. With the UTSA defense being torn to shreds, they came back out late in the first half desperate to get a stop. UAB quickly moved down the field and with 45 seconds left in the half, faced a third and one from the UTSA five. The ‘Runners defense came through when it mattered, as they forced their way into the backfield and stopped the UAB run for a loss, holding the Blazers to a field goal as time expired in the first half and entering halftime down 17-24. 

Joshua Cephus weaves his way through defenders during UTSA’s victory over UAB on Saturday. Cephus had five catches for 58 yards in the game and has set new career-highs this season in catches, yards and touchdowns. (Ellyson Ortega)

UTSA came out with a statement to start the third quarter, as Harris found Franklin wide open down the middle of the field for a walk in 54-yard touchdown pass to quickly tie the game back up at 24. Crucially, a UTSA defense that was roasted for 349 yards of total offense by the Blazers and looked physically and mentally worn down at the end of the first half came back out fired up. A third down sack of Hopkins by Lorenzo Dantzler led to a quick three and out and brought the Alamodome crowd to its feet. From there, both offenses struggled. UTSA went three and out on their next possession and after Hopkins was intercepted by Jamal Ligon, they went three and out again. 

The UTSA defense, now fully in control of the momentum, forced another futile drive out of the UAB offense and after Sheldon Jones was interfered with trying to field the punt, the UTSA offense started their drive already inside UAB territory. The offense continued to struggle, though, picking up just one first down on the drive and forcing Duplessis to come out for a 49-yard field attempt. Luckily, he delivered in the clutch once again and UTSA took their first lead of the game late in the third quarter 27-24. 

UAB started the fourth quarter with their best drive of the second half, picking up first downs at a steady clip, but eventually UTSA’s defense stopped them at midfield and forced a punt. On UTSA’s next drive, disaster struck. On third down Harris was hit from behind by a UAB defender and lost the football. Luckily Franklin was there to jump on it, but the play knocked UTSA all the way back to their own two yard line. Dean, standing in the shadow of his own goal post, managed to get the punt away and it was a good one, but UAB still took over at the UTSA 44. 

The UTSA defense that had held so strongly in the second half were asked to make yet another stop, but the UAB offense came back to life. A couple of first downs set up DeWayne McBride to score the go-ahead touchdown for the Blazers on a run from 16 yards out to go up 27-31 with just over five minutes left in the game. The UTSA offense which had been stagnant for much of the first half was called upon to save the undefeated season and the early returns on the drive were good. UTSA kept the chains moving and eventually had first and 10 from the UAB 41 with just over two minutes left in the game.

Things fell apart from there with two straight incompletions setting UTSA up for third and 10. Harris rolled to his right and found Franklin on the sideline who made a tremendous effort to bring the ball down for a first down, if only the referees saw it that way. Initially ruling Franklin out of bounds on the catch, the play would be reviewed, and after a lengthy review process in which multiple angles showed Franklin got not one, but two feet in bounds, the officials stayed with the call on the field and ruled it incomplete, sending boos cascading down onto the field from the UTSA faithful. On fourth down, Harris had no one open and scrambled to buy time, eventually Franklin freed himself from his defender and caught the ball, but he was short of the first down marker and UTSA turned it over on downs with just under two minutes left in the game and two timeouts. 

UAB took back possession and just 10 yards separated them from upsetting the undefeated Roadrunners at home and putting themselves in prime position to win the Conference USA West division title. They’d hand the ball off to McBride on first and second down, gaining six yards, forcing UTSA to burn both of their timeouts and leaving them with a third and four. UAB went back to McBride again and he was hit almost immediately by the UTSA defensive line, but McBride kept the legs churning and his second-effort put him down right at the first down marker. With the distance too close to call, the officials brought out the chains for a measurement and UTSA’s undefeated season hung in the balance. The chains were stretched out and the Alamodome went silent in anticipation. The chains kept stretching and eventually they grew taught, the marker was put down and the ball was short of the first down by a few centimeters. The Dome exploded in celebration and this left UAB Blazers head coach Bill Clark with a choice. Would he attempt to gain those few centimeters knowing a failure to do so would leave UTSA in great field position, or would he punt the ball away and trust his defense to stop the ‘Runners with only a minute left on the clock and no timeouts. A delay of game penalty confirmed Clark’s decision, the Blazers punted the ball away and UTSA regained possession at their own 23 with 1:06 left in the game. 

Ellyson Ortega

With no timeouts left on either side, things would have to move fast for UTSA and be executed nearly perfectly to have a chance. The first play from scrimmage was anything but, as no receiver could get open for Harris and he had to throw it away. The second play bore fruit, however, as Harris had time in the pocket and delivered a strike over the middle to a wide-open Cardenas to the UAB 49. UTSA hurried to the line and Harris hit Clark for a short six-yard gain, but Clark managed to get out of bounds to stop the clock. On the next play, UTSA got the connection they needed. Clark immediately beat his defender off the line and Harris threw a deep shot down the left sideline, Clark located the football and went up for a spectacular leaping catch through hard coverage, just getting his foot in bounds, down at the UAB 10. UTSA sprinted to the line and took the snap with just 30 seconds remaining in the game. With no one open, Harris took off and looked destined to score, but three UAB defenders converged on him and delivered a crushing hit, stopping Harris in his tracks at the one-yard line with no possibility of breaking through into the end zone. A pile of bodies ensued at the goal line and as time ticked down it appeared that UTSA would have one shot at the end zone. A UAB injury, though, gave the ‘Runners more time, as the clock was stopped at six seconds and after the referees conferred, the clock was readjusted to nine seconds. 

On the first play from the one, Harris rolled to his left and threw a ball out to Cephus, but it was wide of the mark amidst good coverage and the pass fell incomplete with just seven seconds left. That set up the improbable finish. Harris lined up in the shotgun and took the snap, but it was low and Harris had to scoop it off of the ground. McCormick somehow managed to control his back foot from kicking the ball away from Harris, and Harris gathered the ball back up off the ground. Harris rolled to his left and there stood Cardenas wide open in the back of the end zone. With pressure bearing down on him, Harris lobbed it up for Cardenas. The ball fluttered in the air, but Cardenas was in good position, a UAB linebacker desperately reached back for the football and got a fingertip on it, deflecting the path of the ball at the last second. Cardenas stayed with it and quickly made the adjustment to his right to look it into his hands, securing the ball as he fell to ground for the game-winning touchdown, sending the 35,147 fans in attendance at the Alamodome, the fifth-largest crowd in UTSA history, into utterly jubilant celebration in the stands. 

With three seconds left in the game, UTSA still had to kick the ball back to UAB and they’d have one chance on the return to steal the win. The kick return was covered expertly by UTSA, Dadrian Taylor made the final tackle of the game after one lateral, and UTSA came from behind for the 34-31 victory, winning their first ever Conference USA West division title and extending their unbeaten the season to 11 games. By virtue of their victory, UTSA will host the Conference USA Championship Game in the Alamodome on Friday, Dec. 3, at 6 p.m. Student admission to the game will be free, however tickets will need to be claimed beginning on Nov. 29, with further details forthcoming. General admission tickets will go on sale Tuesday, Nov. 23, at 2 p.m. They will match up with the Conference USA East division champion, either the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (7-4, 6-1 C-USA) or the Marshall Thundering Herd (7-4, 5-2 C-USA) depending on who wins the clash between the two teams this Saturday.

First, however, the ‘Runners turn their attention towards finishing off an undefeated regular season when they head on the road to Denton, TX, to take on the University of North Texas Mean Green (5-6, 4-3 C-USA). Kickoff is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 27, at 1 p.m., the game will also be available to stream on ESPN+.