3:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: UTSA -2.5, Over/Under: 54.5
Well, we made it to the end of the season, folks, and what better way to kick off three weeks of bowls than with a top-25 matchup between conference champions, pitting the twenty-fifth ranked Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners against the twenty-fourth ranked Troy Trojans in the Cure Bowl? After a stunning 12-2 campaign which featured their first Conference USA Championship in the brief history of the program, UTSA (11-2, 8-0 in CUSA) followed that feat by running it back, winning ten-plus games for the first time in school history and winning another league title. Indeed, (Head Coach) Jeff Traylor has done nothing short of a remarkable job during his three years in Southern Texas, taking a 4-8 team and leading them to a stellar 30-9 record (.769), positioning him as one of the hottest coaches in the country. Despite a disappointing 1-2 start in which they suffered a narrow loss to (24) Houston (37-35) before falling at (21) Texas (41-20) two weeks later, the Roadrunners quickly course-corrected, finishing the campaign on a scintillating ten-game winning streak, culminating in a comfortable 48-27 romp over North Texas in the CUSA Championship Game (more on that shortly). The team has continued to make their bones on the offensive side of the football, ranking twelfth in the FBS in scoring (38.7) on a 486.1 total yards, including 308.6 yards through the air, led by (Senior Quarterback) Frank Harris, who will be making the final start of his collegiate career today. It’s been an interesting journey for Harris (pictured below), who tore his ACL during the Spring of 2018, and despite winning the starting job a year later, was lost for the season in just the fourth game. Credit to his resilience, the dual threat took advantage of yet another injury crisis in 2020, taking command of the position and has never looked back; over the last three years he has won thirty games, while throwing for 8,672 yards and rushing for another 1,682, while totaling ninety-five touchdowns, which is a school record that may stand for a rather long time. During this current win streak, Harris has been on fire, completing an efficient 72.2% of his passes for an average of 294.7 yards on an explosive 9.6 yards per attempt with twenty-five touchdowns opposed to just five interceptions, with another 457 rushing yards and eight scores along the way. Credit also goes to Taylor and his coaching staff, who have done a tremendous job of mining the fertile recruiting grounds of the Lone Star State, surrounding his Quarterback with plenty of talent, with (Receivers) Zakhari Franklin, De’Corian Clark, and Joshua Cephus each hauling in 50+ receptions, 700+ yards, and 6+ touchdowns. Of the triumvirate, Franklin has become the undisputed star, with the Junior posting his second consecutive 1,000-yard season, totaling career-highs in catches (86), yards (1,100), and a CUSA-best FOURTEEN touchdowns, which also ranks third-best in the country. Indeed, the last two games have been a proverbial party Franklin, who has torched UTEP and North Texas for a combined seventeen receptions, 270 yards, and four scores. Now, this decorated group will attempt to do something that they haven’t managed in the history of their program: win a bowl. UTSA has participated in just three bowls since their inaugural season back in 2012, losing New Mexico Bowl back in 2016 (38-24), the First Responder Bowl two years ago (31-24), and the Frisco Bowl last December (23-20). Simply put, there is no better way to cap off this three-year run under Traylor in which they won they’ve enjoyed so many firsts, and after narrowly losing to New Mexico a year ago, these Roadrunners are on a mission to finish the job today.
When we last saw Texas-San Antonio, they raced to their second consecutive Conference USA crown in a 48-27 drubbing of North Texas. After falling behind 10-7 early in the second quarter, Traylor’s troops put their foot on the proverbial gas pedal, running off seventeen unanswered points to head into intermission with a 24-10 advantage. The Mean Green would make it a lively second half, cutting the deficit to seven points early in the fourth period, but the Roadrunners ended the affair on a 14-0 run as the aforementioned Harris hit Franklin for a 39-yard touchdown followed by a 16-yard score to (Sophomore Tight End) Oscar Cardenas. In the end, UTSA has racked up a staggering 571 total yards on THIRTY-TWO first downs, rushing for 227 yards and a pair of scores on forty-seven carries, while Harris added another 341 yards and four touchdowns on a surgical 32-of-37 passing. (Redshirt Freshman) Kevorian Barnes erupted for 175 yards and a touchdown on twenty-eight carries, while Harris added another forty-nine yards and a score on sixteen carries. Franklin posted a season-high 144 yards and THREE touchdowns, while Cephus and Cardenas chipped in with eighty-four yards apiece. (Defensive Coordinator) Jess Loepp’s unit came away with a pair of interceptions, the first from (Senior Safety) Clifford Chattman and latter courtesy of (fellow Safety) Ken Robinson. Looking to today’s matchup with Troy, Texas-San Antonio has covered the spread in half of their last ten games, though are 4-1 against the spread in their last five games as a favorite. On the injury front, (Senior Tailback) Brenden Brady is listed as questionable after missing the last game with an undisclosed ailment, with the same being said for (fellow Tailback) Trelon Smith, who missed the last four contests. Brady led the Roadrunners with 699 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, while Smith has struggled to find his footing after transferring from Arkansas last Spring. As he has all season, look for the explosive Barnes to make the most of the opportunity, with the Freshman churning out 713 yards on 6.3 yards per rush and six touchdowns.
Meanwhile, UTSA aren’t the only ranked conference champion in this matchup, for Troy (11-2, 7-1 in Sun Belt) have returned their standing as the class of the league, finishing the campaign riding high on a ten-game winning streak of their own. After three straight five-win seasons, (former Head Coach) was fired before he could even finish 2021, with the program ultimately settling upon Jon Sumrall as his replacement, which turned out to be a masterstroke for Athletic Department. The 40-year-old spent the last three season coaching Linebackers at Kentucky, including 2021 as Co-Defensive Coordinator, and brings that valuable SEC experience to Troy. Of course, Sumrall is very familiar with the program, serving as Associate Head Coach from 2015 to 2017 when they posted back-to-back ten-win campaigns for the first time in school history, winning a Sun Belt Championship along the way. So, what in the name of DeMarcus Ware has happened, you ask? Well, Sumrall has done a solid job of developing playmakers on the offensive side of the football, while putting together the most formidable defense in the conference. After a slow start on Offense in which six of their first eight wins came by one possession, the Trojans finally found their rhythm over the final three weeks, averaging 42.3 points on 391.6 total yards, including 211.6 yards on the ground. (Sophomores) Kaimani Vidal and Tez Johnson have been late bloomers under the watch of (Offensive Coordinator) Joe Craddock, who ironically worked with the aforementioned Traylor at Arkansas from 2018 to 2019. As a True Freshman, Vidal (pictured below) led the team with 516 rushing yards and has continued to get better with 1,059 yards on 5.1 yards per carry with nine touchdowns, 450 yards and six scores in consecutive wins over the likes of Louisiana-Monroe (34-16) and Arkansas State (48-19). As for Johnson, he’s been quieter of late, but the Soph has managed to top his receiving total from last year (735 yards), reeling in fifty-two passes for 823 yards and four touchdowns. Of course, it’s hard to talk about this unit without mentioning (Junior Quarterback) Gunnar Watson, who has been on campus so long that he was there back when Sumrall worked there the first time around. Now in his fifth season with the Trojans, Watson has been far from great, but as has been the case throughout his collegiate career, he has been steady enough to compete for the starting job. It’s clear that Sumrall valued that quality, for Watson has started more games than he has in any single season (12), completing 61.9% of his passes for 2,705 yards on 8.7 yards per attempt (which are both career-highs), with thirteen touchdowns in comparison to ten interceptions. Defensively, this team has made great strides under the new coaching staff, yielding the eighth-fewest points in the FBS (17.5) on just 325.3 total yards, including 207.5 against the pass an another 117.8 versus the run. The Trojans have produced their share of big plays, totaling twenty-two takeaways, seventy-four tackles for loss, and thirty-nine sacks. (Sophomore Lineman) T.J. Jakcson has been a terror in the trenches with a team-high 14.5 tackles, eight sacks, and a pair of forced fumbles, while (Junior Edge-Rusher) Richard Jibunor has thrived moving outside in this 3-4 defensive front, totaling 10.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks, and two forced fumbles of his own. This group has helped propel Troy to their first bowl since 2018, and they’ll be looking to win their fifth in a row. The Trojans have appeared in just eight bowls over the course of their history, but generally handle themselves well with a 5-3 record, outscoring their opponents by 101 points over the last four contests.
When we last saw Troy, they cruised to their first Sun Belt Championship since 2017, hammering Coastal Carolina in a 48-21 triumph. The offensive renaissance continued in this one, folks, as the Trojans hung 411 total yards on the Chanticleers, with the aforementioned Watson putting together arguably the most impressive performance of his career. It’s a good thing that he did, for this was one of the few games this season in which Sumrall’s Defense failed to meet their standard, relinquishing 432 total yards and twenty-seven first downs, along with 319 yards through the air. Watson, though, was nothing short of efficient in completing 12-of-17 passes for 318 yards and three touchdowns, getting chunks of yardage virtually every time, he dropped back to pass, with his three passing scores traveling sixty-five, sixty-seven, and thirty-six yards. (Junior receiver) RaJae’ Johnson-Sanders was responsible for two of those touchdowns, compiling over half of his 134 yards on those two plays alone, while (fellow Wideout) Deshon Stoudemire authored the other one, adding to his 99-yard night. This was the most aggressive that Sumrall’s troops have looked this season, scoring on five of their first six drives of the game, building a commanding 31-0 lead before the end of the first half. Though they gave up plenty of yards, the Defense played a role in the victory too, forcing three turnovers in the victory, including an interception and a pair of fumbles. Looking to today’s affair, Troy has been money against the spread of late, covering all but two of their last ten games, including five straight away from Veterans Memorial Stadium. They’ve also been easy money as an underdog, which is the case today, covering the spread in five consecutive contests. On the injury front, this team is largely healthy, with (Sophomore Nose Tackle) Luis Medina and (Junior Linebacker) Jayden McDonald having missed the last three games with undisclosed injuries, making them questionable for today’s Cure Bowl.