WKU to begin conference play against UTSA: What to expect from the Roadrunners

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

WKU Football (1-3) will play its first conference game of the year against the undefeated UTSA Roadrunners (5-0, 1-0 C-USA) at Houchens-Smith Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 9 at 6 p.m. CT. Here’s what to look out for in this weekend’s matchup: 

Why is UTSA undefeated? 

The Roadrunners have played some tough opponents on the road to start the season, beating Illinois 37-30 after leading the whole way and making an incredible 21-point comeback against Memphis to win 31-28.

UTSA’s stout defense has been the key to its early success. This defense has allowed its offense to outgain opponents by 666 yards on the year. The Roadrunner defense is great at getting off the field, allowing opponents to convert on only 32% of their fourth-down attempts. 

The Roadrunners have only surrendered 2.3 yard per carry, tied for third best in the nation, while being the fifth-best in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game with just 71.2.  

UTSA also has been sturdy against air attacks, allowing a solid 56.7 completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks while allowing just 227 passing yards per game. 

“Coach [Jeff] Traylor, an old high school Texas head coach that I know very well, has done a remarkable job there, really turning that program around,” offensive coordinator Zach Kittley said. “They play really, really hard. They’re another blue collar type of bunch. Big, nasty guys on the defensive line. Really fast and athletic linebackers, and then just a bunch of really, really physical DBs.”

Watch out for Sincere McCormick 

The Roadrunners’ running back has been one of the best backs in the nation the past two seasons. In 2020, he was second in the nation with 1,467 total yards on 5.9 yards per carry and this season he ranks 11th in the nation with 541 yards on 4.1 yards per carry. 

“I would say he’s closest to [Stephen] Carr from Indiana,” defensive coordinator Maurice Crum said. “[He] has that same motor, has that same patience, that same vision, and that same burst. [He] bounces off a lot of tackles. [He is] more compact, but does a really good job running behind his pads and running with power.” 

The Hilltoppers have proven to not be able to stop the run this year against FBS opponents, allowing a 100-plus yard rusher in three consecutive games. WKU allows 216.5 rushing yards per game, 11th worst in the country, on 4.7 yards per carry.  

Offense must thaw out quickly

WKU’s slow starts have been well documented over the past few weeks, but let’s hit the high points. The Hilltoppers’ slow starts have put them behind so badly that outscoring their opponents 53-33, while out gaining them by 176 yards, has still not been enough to secure comeback victories.

WKU graduate quarterback Bailey Zappe has been great, but he has to start fast to give his team a chance. He looks out-of-rhythm early in games, leading to two interceptions and two three-and-outs on first drives this season. 

On the other side, UTSA has only scored once on its first possession, but the Roadrunners have scored first in every game this season except when they played Memphis. WKU hasn’t scored first at all this season. 

“Same deal. We’ve struggled on that a lot this year,” Kittley said. “That’s been another point of emphasis. Let’s score first. I feel like we’re a pretty explosive offense, and we haven’t made anybody chase us yet. I think that’s something that we need to do.”

The difference between UTSA and WKU is how the defense starts the game out. The Roadrunners have held opponents to 45 first-half points in five games compared to the Hilltoppers allowing 86 first-half points. WKU allowed Michigan State to score 42 first-half points last week. 

UTSA holds its opponents to just 17.6 points per game whereas WKU allows 35 points per game, 15th worst in the nation. 

“We’re two teams that have played pretty good competition,” head coach Tyson Helton said. “We’re both well seasoned. It should make for a great game. I think both teams are excited to play each other.” 

Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. CT Saturday night.

Football reporter Wyatt Sparkman can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @wyattsparkman3.