WKU’s C-USA Championship comeback falls short, UTSA holds on to win rematch

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Allie Hendricks

WKU freshman running back Kye Robichaux is hounded by UTSA’s defense during the Hilltoppers’ 52-46 loss to the Roadrunners at Houchens-Smith Stadium on Oct. 9, 2021.

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

WKU’s (8-5, 7-2 C-USA) 29-point comeback attempt fell short 49-41 in the Conference USA Championship against the UTSA Roadrunners (12-1, 8-1 C-USA) at the Alamodome on Friday night. 

“We just stopped ourselves,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said. “It wasn’t really anything that they did, snaps over the head [were] huge and some dropped balls. They got after us defensively early, and the first half was the first half. I’m very proud of our defense in the second half because basically we spotted them 14 points. We muffed a punt. We throw a pick down there. So, we spot them 14. I thought the defense kept battling and gave us an opportunity to try to go win the game so that’s why I was proud of them.”

This was the Hilltoppers’ first title game appearance since 2016, back in the Jeff Brohm era. Friday’s matchup was the second time WKU and UTSA squared off this season, the Roadrunners taking the first game 52-46 on Oct. 9. 

WKU graduate quarterback Bailey Zappe aired out for 577 yards, a season high, with four touchdowns and two interceptions. Zappe broke the program’s single-season passing yards record in the second quarter, a mark that was set by Brandon Doughty in 2015. He is now five touchdowns away from Joe Burrow’s FBS record of touchdowns in a single season.

“[If] we play how we played in the second half, the first half would have been a different game, but that didn’t happen,” Zappe said. “It just boils down to execution. I think a lot of that comes on to me, I’ve got to be better. We got one game left together and we’ll go all out that game.”

UTSA senior quarterback Frank Harris tossed for 218 yards and two touchdowns, rushing for 81 yards and a score. 

WKU junior wide receivers Mitchell Tinsley and Jerreth Sterns combined for 19 catches for 352 yards and four touchdowns. 

UTSA junior running back Sincere McCormick rushed for 204 yards on 36 carries for three touchdowns, earning championship MVP honors.

“They’re just a really good football team,” Helton said. “Well coached football team. [They] got a big physical offensive linemen up front, running back is again [showing] why he’s one of the better backs in the country. [I] thought their quarterback played extremely well. [He] took care of the football, receivers made big plays when they needed to make them.”

Both teams combined for a total of 1,124 yards.

“They [UTSA] run a whole lot of different variations out of their formation, they came ready, they came with a plan,” Senior defensive back Antwon Kincade said. “We felt like we practiced hard all week. We practiced, we knew what they were going to do, but they kind of gave us different things here or there.” 

Q1 

WKU won the coin toss and elected to receive. 

Zappe and his troops started slow but converted a third-and-10 to Sterns for a first down. Zappe found a wide-open Tinsley down the sideline for a 60-yard touchdown on the fifth play from scrimmage.

Harris and his troops answered back. Harris found Joshua Cephus for 14 yards before scrambling for 23 yards on his own to get down near the redzone. Harris tied the game back up after finding a wide-open lane, scrambling 24 yards for the equalizer.

WKU’s next possession started out with a bang. Zappe found Tinsley for 45 yards, getting into the redzone, but the UTSA defense stepped up and forced a field goal attempt from redshirt sophomore Brayden Narveson. Narveson put the Hilltoppers back on top 10-7 with a 33-yard attempt. 

The Roadrunners slowed the pace a bit, utilizing the ground game to get to midfield before McCormick rushed for 13 yards to get deep into Hilltopper territory. McCormick carried a WKU defender for a first down on fourth-and-one. 

UTSA converted a third-and-two by having Cephus throw a pass to Harris for a first down. McCormick capped off the drive by ramming in a two-yard touchdown, giving the Roadrunners a 14-10 lead. 

The Hilltoppers moved quickly, getting the ball past midfield. Zappe took a deep shot to freshman wideout Malachi Corley, but he dropped a wide-open touchdown. Sterns caught a pass and used his speed to pick up a first down on third-and-15. WKU wideout Ben Ratzlaff made a fully-extended diving catch to get the ball to the UTSA one-yard line. 

The WKU drive came to an abrupt end after Zappe slipped on a read option. Redshirt sophomore center Rusty Staats sailed a snap over Zappe’s head, pushing the ball back to the UTSA 16-yard line. 

Q2

The Hilltoppers settled for a Narveson 34-yard field goal on the first play of the second quarter, cutting the Roadrunner lead to 14-13. 

UTSA continued where it left off. McCormick caught a Harris pass then made a man miss to move the chains on third down. McCormick converted another third down before the Roadrunners ran a double-pass. 

Brenden Brady tossed a 24-yard pass to junior wide receiver Zakhari Franklin, who caught the pigskin while colliding with a Hilltopper defender. Brady powered his way to a six-yard score, extending the UTSA lead 21-13. 

Zappe found freshman halfback Kye Robichaux for 38 yards on the first play of their next drive. The drive stalled out after a false start and a Clarence Hicks sack. Zappe got the Hilltoppers back into field goal range but Narveson missed a 53-yard attempt, the first possession of the game for either side that didn’t result in a score. 

McCormick outran the WKU defense for a 65-yard touchdown on the next play. On the ensuing kickoff, redshirt sophomore Beanie Bishop returned it to near midfield. Staats had another bad snap that resulted in a 23-yard loss on the first play of the drive. WKU punter John Haggery III trotted out onto the field for the first punt of the game. 

UTSA continued its dominance, getting to midfield with ease after an 11-yard scamper from Harris to convert a third down. UTSA converted another third down before an offensive pass interference pushed the Roadrunners back and stalled out their drive. 

WKU pushed the ball down into field goal range before Brayden Narveson missed another 53-yard kick, taking the game into intermission.

Q3 

The WKU defense forced its first punt of the game. Sterns muffed the punt and UTSA recovered at the WKU 14-yard line. Two plays later, Franklin made a one-handed grab in the back of the endzone, extending the lead 35-13. 

Zappe threw an interception on the Hilltoppers’ second play of the second half. The following play, McCormick ran in a 17-yard touchdown, his third score of the game, extending the Roadrunner lead to 42-13. 

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WKU finally got the ball moving, running a quarterback draw on a third-and-nine. Zappe hit junior wideout Daewood Davis for 35 yards to get the Hilltoppers inside the redzone. Zappe capped off the drive with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Tinsley on a fourth-and-six. 

Harris converted a third-and-two to Brady, but the drive didn’t pick up any momentum. WKU stopped McCormick on a fourth-and-one, taking the ball back near midfield. WKU started moving after a targeting call on UTSA safety Rashad Wisdom. 

The Hilltoppers converted another third down with a 16-yard pass to Corley. Zappe hit an open Jerreth Sterns for a 13-yard touchdown. The two-point conversion failed, leaving the score at 42-26 with 3:01 left in the third quarter. 

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The Roadrunners moved the ball into WKU territory as the third quarter came to a close. 

Q4

Harris converted a third-and-10 with a 14-yard completion to Cephus, but the drive stalled out after a Brodric Martin and DeAngelo Malone sack. Senior kicker Hunter Duplessis missed a 45-yard field goal, giving the ball back to WKU at its own 29 yard-line. 

Zappe hit Sterns down the middle of the field for 50 yards on the second play of the possession. Zappe then dumped the ball off to Tinsley who fought his way to the UTSA one-yard line before Robichaux powered his way to a one-yard touchdown. Zappe lasered a tight-window throw to Sterns for the two-point conversion, cutting the Roadrunner lead to 42-34 with 10:51 left in the game.

UTSA finally answered back. Harris converted a third-and-nine with a 16-yard completion to Oscar Cardenas before converting a fourth-and-three to Franklin. Harris and his troops marched inside the WKU 30-yard line before Harris connected with De’Corian Clark for a 28-yard touchdown, extending their lead to 49-35. 

The Hilltoppers converted a fourth-and-six to get their wheels moving. Zappe found Sterns for 16 yards, getting into Roadrunner territory before the Zappe-and-Stern connection hit pay dirt with a 34-yard touchdown, cutting the lead to 49-41 with 3:58 left in the game, a comeback in sight. 

UTSA picked up a first down, but WKU was able to get the ball back with 1:05 left in the game. The Hilltoppers moved the ball in UTSA territory before Bailey Zappe’s hail-mary attempt with one second on the clock was intercepted by sophomore safety Jahmal Sam. 

UTSA won its first C-USA Championship, and WKU lost its first C-USA Championship game. 

“They never think they’re out of it,” Helton said about his team. “We’re down by 30-some points at some time in the game and they never blinked. They just kept battling and kept thinking they were going to go win the game. That’s why I love those guys, and we got one more to go play. We’re very blessed to have another opportunity to go play and try to go get a win in a big bowl game.”

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