WKU vs UTSA: Hilltoppers have a chance to showcase improvement in second meeting with Roadrunners

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Alexandra Hendricks

WKU redshirt freshman wide receiver Dalvin Smith (17) evades UTSA redshirt sophomore cornerback Ken Robinson (21) during WKU’s game at Houchens-Smith Stadium on Oct. 9, 2021. UTSA won 52-46.

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

WKU travels to San Antonio, Texas to play the University of Texas at San Antonio Roadrunners Friday afternoon for the 2021 Conference USA Championship. 

This will be the second meeting between the two programs this year. UTSA won the first matchup 52-46 on Oct. 9. 

“It’s an exciting game,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said. “It should be a great environment. They have a great fan base there. I expect a huge crowd inside, and so I’m sure it’s gonna be a really loud and electric environment. That’s what you want for a championship game. You want to have that big time environment. I know our guys would be really excited to play in that environment, and they’re a really good football team, well coached football team”

The first chapter

The first meeting between these two teams didn’t go the Hilltoppers’ way, as they lost 52-46 in a shootout. WKU actually outgained UTSA by almost 100 yards, putting up 670 total yards in the process. 

Senior quarterback Frank Harris threw six touchdowns, a fourth of what he threw all season. WKU graduate quarterback Bailey Zappe threw for 523 yards and five touchdowns. He threw his only interception of the game with 43 seconds left on the clock, trying to fit his pass in a tight window to get a game-winning touchdown.  

The Hilltoppers beat themselves constantly in that game. Senior safety Antwon Kincade committed pass interference early in the fourth quarter on a third down that put the Roadrunners in field goal range. 

The Hilltoppers had a 22-yard rush on third down that put them in UTSA territory called back because of a holding call on freshman guard Quantavious Leslie. Leslie and senior tackle Cole Spencer performed an illegal chop block after Zappe completed a pass to get down to the UTSA one-yard line on their last drive of the game.

The chop block was on the backside of the play, making it that much more of a stinger. Three plays later, Zappe tried forcing a pass to get back to the one-yard line. WKU beat itself in that first matchup.  

“We kind of came out of that as a stronger team,” Helton said. “A team that knows everything about ourselves, what our strengths and weaknesses are. I think it’s great we had an opportunity to play each other. We kind of know everything about each other now, so it should be a great matchup.”

Where are these teams at now? 

WKU has been dominating C-USA competition over the last seven weeks, putting together a seven-game win streak and dominating opponents by 26.4 points per game.

UTSA cooled off a bit throughout November after a 9-0 start to its season. The Roadrunners were down at the half in each of their last three contests. They came back against Southern Mississippi and Alabama-Birmingham, but lost their first game of the season last Saturday to North Texas 45-23. 

UTSA’s run game is second-best in C-USA, but its air attack is middle of the pack. Harris has done a good job at protecting the football this year by only throwing five interceptions, best in C-USA. 

The WKU defense has been thriving off of turnovers during its winning streak, forcing teams into 22 turnovers and scoring 93 points during that seven-game stretch. The Hilltoppers have a +11 turnover margin, sixth-best in the nation. 

“It was just the last straw for everything,” WKU defensive coordinator Maurice Crum said. “We kind of had our last moment with our back against the wall kind of deal. I just think every game that we’ve gone through there’s been bright spots and moments for us defensively. We just hadn’t had a chance to put it all together. I think after the UTSA game that the guys really started to see that.”

UTSA has the 13th-best run defense in the nation, but last Saturday against North Texas the program gave up 340 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. The UTSA pass defense is middle of the pack and the unit can’t play like that against the best air attack in the nation. 

On paper, the Hilltoppers match up well, especially with the way this program has played the back half of the season. However, UTSA beat this team earlier this year. This will be the final test to see just how much each side has improved or regressed during the season.

Kickoff in San Antonio is set for 6 p.m. CT on Friday afternoon and the title game will be broadcast on the CBS Sports Network.

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