UTSA wins first Conference USA championship 49-41 over Western Kentucky

The UTSA offense celebrates after Sincere McCormick scores his first touchdown of the game to give UTSA their first lead. The UTSA offense compiled 556 yards of total offense in the victory.

Ryder Martin, Sports Editor

The UTSA Roadrunners (12-1, 7-1 C-USA) secured their first ever Conference USA title on Dec. 3 with a 49-41 victory over the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (8-5, 7-1 C-USA) in front of 41,118 roaring fans at the Alamodome. The two teams had met previously on Oct. 9, with the ‘Runners victorious by a final score of 52-46 thanks to a diving interception in the red zone by UTSA’s Clarence Hicks, so sparks were expected in the rematch and it did not disappoint. Despite a ridiculous 577 yards passing and four touchdowns from Western Kentucky quarterback Bailey Zappe, the ‘Runners rode a big start to the second half and a balanced offensive attack to their first Conference USA Championship in school history.

The game started out with Western Kentucky making a statement on their opening drive. Opting to receive the ball to start the game after winning the opening coin toss, an irregular move as teams usually choose to kick off, Western Kentucky delivered the opening salvo on offense. Zappe faked a screen pass and then hit Mitche Tinsley for a 60-yard touchdown pass behind the Roadrunner secondary. UTSA’s offense came prepared with an answer though, driving the length of the field and eventually tying the game at seven when UTSA quarterback Frank Harris took off on a scramble, got into the secondary and won the race to the pylon on the left sideline.

The Hilltoppers entered the game with the second best offense statistically in the nation in both scoring and yardage gained and were living up to that billing early. Zappe found Tinsley on another deep ball and Western Kentucky quickly drove into the red zone. The UTSA defense made a stand and forced a short 33-yard field goal as the Hilltoppers regained the lead 7-10. UTSA kept up the pressure, however, answering with another long drive, even converting an early fourth and one as head coach Jeff Traylor made aggressive decisions knowing his team had to score touchdowns in order to keep up with the Hilltoppers. UTSA went into their bag of tricks in the red zone, pulling out the wide receiver Joshua Cephus pass to Harris trick play they ran in the prior matchup. This one was similarly effective and got UTSA down to the two, and on second and goal running back Sincere McCormick rumbled his way through the pile for the touchdown as UTSA took their first lead of the game 14-10. 

On the ensuing Western Kentucky drive, the UTSA defense limited the big plays, but the Hilltoppers were equally capable of driving the length of the field. Eventually set up on the UTSA four-yard line, Western Kentucky seemed poised to regain the lead, but a bad snap over Zappe’s head killed the drive and forced another short field goal as they drew within one, 14-13. The UTSA offense kept their foot on the gas on their next possession and this time it was backup running back Brenden Brady making plays. The ‘Runners drove inside the Western Kentucky 35 before reaching into their bag of tricks once again, this time dialing up a running back pass from Brady to receiver Zakhari Franklin who went up to make an absolutely beautiful contested catch to take UTSA down to the Western Kentucky six. On the very next play, Brady took a handoff up the middle for the touchdown and UTSA went up 21-13. 

Western Kentucky got the ball back and moved quickly across midfield, but a timely sack of Zappe by Hicks derailed their drive and forced them into a long 53-yard field goal attempt that was missed wide to the left. UTSA took advantage of the decent starting field position immediately as on the first play from scrimmage, McCormick took the handoff, found space through the left side, stiff armed a defender then turned on the jets for a 65-yard touchdown, giving UTSA a 28-13 lead and bringing all 41,118 fans to their feet.

Western Kentucky’s offense was stymied on the next drive and went three-and-out, bringing UTSA’s offense back onto the field with a major opportunity to take control of the game heading into halftime. The ‘Runners made it across midfield, but a questionable offensive pass interference call on a third and short pushed UTSA back and kept them out of field goal range, forcing them to punt. Western Kentucky got the ball back on their own 13 with just over a minute left in the half, but Zappe continued to hit the deep ball, eventually driving the Hilltoppers into field goal range. They ran out of time to try for a touchdown, though, and were forced into attempting another long field goal, which they missed to send UTSA into the locker room at halftime up 28-13. 

To start the second half, the Hilltoppers came out with an intensity that was missing for much of the first half and forced a much-needed stop, making UTSA punt it away. They did not get the ball back, however, as star receiver Jereth Sterns muffed the punt and UTSA recovered at the Western Kentucky 14. On the second play of the drive, Harris threw a fade to Franklin in the back right corner of the end zone, and despite being blatantly interfered with, Franklin made a spectacular one-handed catch for the touchdown. The Hilltoppers got the ball back needing to recover quickly from the special teams miscue, but only managed to compound their mistake. On the second play of the drive, Zappe was pressured by Brandon Matterson and forced a pass into coverage. Antonio Parks stepped in front of the errant pass and intercepted Zappe, returning the ball down to the Western Kentucky 13. On the first play of the ensuing drive, McCormick took a handoff around the right edge, found open grass in front of him and ran in for the touchdown, handing UTSA a commanding 42-13 lead. 

Down 29 and needing a miracle, Zappe got to work. He led the Hilltoppers right down the field on their next possession before eventually finishing off the drive with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Tinsley on a slant route. UTSA got to midfield on their next possession, but were stopped short of a first down, bringing up a fourth and one. Traylor, knowing that Zappe and the Hilltoppers were bound to keep scoring points, got aggressive and went for it. McCormick was stuffed for no gain, though, and UTSA turned it over at midfield. Zappe got the ball back and the Hilltopper offense struck quickly again, with a seven-play drive that took a little over two minutes, as Zappe hit Sterns for a 13-yard touchdown. Of more concern than the touchdown for UTSA, however, was the loss of their leader on defense, safety Rashad Wisdom, who was ejected for targeting after leveling a big hit on Hilltopper receiver Malachi Corley. Western Kentucky crucially missed their two-point attempt, however, leaving them down 16, 42-26. 

Early in the fourth quarter, UTSA drove into field goal range in Western Kentucky territory and looked set to cash in a much-needed touchdown for breathing room, but Harris was sacked, setting up a 46-yard Hunter Duplessis field goal that missed just wide to the right. Zappe continued to heat up from there, hitting Sterns for a 50-yard strike on the second play of the drive. Eventually Western Kentucky got down to the one-yard line and punched it in from there on a handoff to Kye Robichaux. Western Kentucky converted the necessary two-point play on a beautiful throw from Zappe to Sterns in the back corner of the end zone, with Zappe putting it in a place that only Sterns could get it, and Western Kentucky drew within one possession 42-34. 

With the Hilltoppers rapidly closing in, UTSA needed points desperately. The drive started decently for UTSA, with Harris converting an early third down pass play to tight end Oscar Cardenas for a first down. As UTSA approached midfield though, they were stopped four yards short of a first down on their own 49. Without hesitation though, Traylor kept his offense on the field and Harris made the biggest play of the game, completing a pass to Franklin on the left sideline after Franklin ran a beautiful route to get open and pick up the first down. 

Regarding his aggressive call to go for it on fourth down, Traylor said.“I wasn’t giving it back to them, I’d seen enough of him [Zappe]. If we’re going to lose, I’m going with zero [Harris] and three [McCormick] to lose, I wasn’t going to watch four [Zappe] anymore. I told them before the game, I said men, I got a ten-year contract, they can’t pay me off tonight!”

 The aggressive play call paid off for Traylor, as just three plays after the fourth down conversion, Harris took a deep shot to DeCorian Clark, who rose up in the end zone and made the catch over the cornerback, getting both feet in bounds for the touchdown, giving UTSA a 49-34 lead with just over six minutes remaining.

Zappe and the Hilltoppers were not ready to go away, though. Zappe converted one fourth down on the drive and eventually hit Sterns on a 34-yard touchdown pass right down the middle to bring Western Kentucky back within eight. With just under four minutes left in the game, if UTSA could pick up just a few first downs they would be Conference USA Champions, and things started well. The offense picked up a quick first down on the drive and kept the clock moving, and directly afterwards McCormick got nine yards on a carry, setting them up with second and one with just two minutes to go. Things went bad for UTSA from there, however. A false start pushed them back five yards and a Harris scramble for the first was wiped out by a holding penalty. Facing a third and five and with Western Kentucky out of timeouts, all the ‘Runners needed to do was pick up the first down for the win. Traylor called a toss play to the right side, but the Hilltopper defense made a nice play, blowing it up in the backfield and giving Zappe one more shot at the comeback.

Following a decent punt from Lucas Dean, Western Kentucky took back over with just over a minute left on the clock and needing to go 78 yards, score a touchdown and get the two-point conversion to send the game to overtime. Immediately, the UTSA defense made an impact on the drive. Facing a third and three, Zappe was sacked by Hicks, sending the Hilltoppers into scramble mode on fourth down as time bled off the clock. Zappe did not fold and picked up the first down with a completion out to the Hilltopper’s 43. Time quickly became a factor in the drive, however, as the slow first down conversion took its toll on Western Kentucky. Zappe converted another first down out to midfield, but at that point, only seven seconds remained on the clock. As everyone in the Dome rose to their feet everything came down to the Hail Mary. 

The ‘Runners rushed four defenders at Zappe while the rest dropped back into coverage and the pressure got home. Zappe was crowded and could not fully step into his heave and the ball landed well short of the end zone, incomplete as time expired. As the players began to storm the field in celebration the referees blew the whistle and announced that they were reviewing the game clock to ensure there was no time left. After review, the officials correctly determined that there was one second left when Zappe’s desperation heave hit the ground and Western Kentucky got one more shot. This time, Zappe had much better protection around him and he stepped into his throw and launched it high into the air. As the ball arced its way downfield, it was clear the ball was going to be short of the end zone and barring a miracle, it was over. UTSA defender Jahmal Sam was not interested in any miracles, though, and he broke on the ball, jumped into the air and came down with the interception as time expired. 

With that, the ‘Runners took to the field in celebration and soon after were joined by their fans, who stormed the field. After rushing for 204 yards and three touchdowns on 36 carries, McCormick was named the Most Valuable Player of the conference championship game. Harris was efficient all night long, completing 68% of his passes for 218 yards and two touchdowns, while also adding 81 yards rushing on the ground. The UTSA defense took their licks against the passing game, but really turned Western Kentucky into a one-dimensional offense, holding them to negative-nine total rushing yards in the game. In the end, UTSA showed themselves to have the heart of a champion, coming through in the clutch moments and proving themselves to be the best team in Conference USA this season. 

UTSA’s journey does not end here, however. On Dec. 5, the team learned of their bowl game destination. UTSA is headed to Tropical Smoothie Café Frisco Bowl in Frisco, TX. There, they will match up against the No. 23 San Diego St. Aztecs (11-2, 7-1 MWC). Kickoff is slated for 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 21, and tickets are on sale now. The game will also be nationally televised on ESPN.