Jeff Traylor doesn't want his program reverting back to its old losing ways. The head coach hopes three straight years of finishing fifth in the Conference USA West standings is behind his UTSA Roadrunners.
Trouble is, the Roadrunners have followed up a sweet three-win start to the 2020 season with an ugly three-game losing skid. And it doesn't get any easier with the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, the defending C-USA West champion, visiting the Alamodome on Saturday in San Antonio.
"It's a program that has won a lot of football games that is used to winning playing a program that is playing very hard that is not used to winning," Traylor said when asked to handicap the game earlier this week. "It is a battle of one program trying to get like the other program where those guys are used to winning.
"Teams that are used to winning find ways to win ball games, and teams that are used to losing find ways to lose ball games. We have to become a program that wins. Success breeds success. You have to look like a winner and act like a winner before you are ever going to win."
Easier said than done, especially since the Bulldogs have won the last six meetings — and seven of the eight all-time — against the Roadrunners. And the Bulldogs, now 3-2 overall and 2-1 in C-USA action, are likely to come in a little ticked after getting rolled by Marshall 35-17 last week.
"I think as disheartening as the Marshall game was, I think after the players had the opportunity to watch the film on Sunday, I felt like we went out and had a very spirited practice," Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz told reporters. "I think they realize how good they can be. They realize how close we are.
"I think there were a lot of positives in the (Marshall) game, and believe it or not, morale-wise, it's actually a booster rather than a deflation because I think everybody can see just how close we are."
Meanwhile, UTSA had its hands full with Army and its relentless ground march in a 28-16 loss at home in Week 7. After two earlier wins at the Alamodome, it was the first home loss for the Roadrunners, who are 3-3 overall and 1-1 in conference play, this season.
Louisiana Tech at UTSA
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 24 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Louisiana Tech -1.5
When Louisiana Tech Has the Ball
Marshall gobbled up Louisiana Tech's ground game last week, allowing just 7 yards rushing on 24 attempts. Ouch. Quarterback Luke Anthony took the brunt of a smothering defense, losing 31 yards on eight carries.
It didn't matter that he looked pretty good chucking the ball, going 18-of-25 for 180 yards or that fellow senior Adrian Hardy had nine receptions for 102 yards — both game-highs — and a touchdown because when the Bulldogs don't have a rushing attack, they just don't win.
Additionally, senior running back Justin Henderson, who leads Louisiana Tech with 245 rushing yards on 68 carries, was held to just 16 yards on 11 hauls. And the offense, which is averaging a palatable 342.6 yards and 29.8 points per game, converted just 1-of-10 third-down attempts.
"It was the small things that beat us," senior wide receiver Isaiah Graham, who has just 85 receiving yards on eight receptions, told reporters. "The way we prepare doesn't change. We got to keep banging rock, and eventually, this is all going to work out. I feel like we're just this close."
The heat is on the Bulldogs' offensive line these days. Prior to surrendering six sacks to Marshall, they allowed 13 tackles for a loss against UTEP. But it should help to get starting right tackle Antawn Lewis back from COVID-19 isolation this Saturday to help smooth over the woes of the unit.
And the Bulldogs will need all the help they can get with UTSA's takeaway defense on tap. The Roadrunners lead C-USA and ranks fourth in FBS with 11 takeaways, including seven interceptions. Sophomore safety Kelechi Nwachuku led with 16 tackles, including nine solo stops, to pace the UTSA defense in Week 7.
When UTSA Has the Ball
The Roadrunners offense has enough high-grade weapons to compete against a winning program and snap the current skid. For instance, running back Sincere McCormick leads FBS in rushing yards (702), a starry stat regardless of the pandemic having cut NCAA membership.
Fellow sophomore Zakhari Franklin is averaging 64.4 receiving yards per game, which ranks tops in school history, and is coming off a UTSA-best 12-catch game for a career-high 138 yards. There's an emerging weapon in sophomore receiver Joshua Cephus, who leads the team in catches (31) and has 309 receiving yards. And then senior Hunter Duplessis continues to be a robo-kicker, with 21 straight field goals to give him the longest active streak in FBS and the most (12) in the nation this year.
However, the linchpin in UTSA's balanced attack, which is averaging 401.7 yards on 217.3 passing and 184.3 rushing per game, is quarterback Frank Harris' effectiveness while still hobbled by a knee sprain. The junior pivot returns to the starter's role, with no experience behind him on the depth chart, after getting injured and watching Lowell Narcisse get hot in the pocket against ranked BYU. But Narcisse is down now, too, after jamming his leg last Saturday and undergoing ankle surgery.
So it's Harris' ball once more — he of 63-of-101 passing for 597 yards, four touchdowns, and two interceptions. He's also rushed for 187 yards and five scores.
"He says he's healthy," Traylor told reporters. "I hope he's right. We need him to be healthy. I have to trust Frank. We don't have any other options. He says he's good to go."
If not, Louisiana Tech's defensive standouts — especially freshman Tyler Grubbs, with 51 tackles including four for losses on the season, and senior Trey Baldwin, with 16 tackles last week and three pass breakups on the year — might be there to make him look bad.
Both sides head into this tilt with shaken confidence given recent circumstances. So it likely comes down to who can settle themselves first.
Harris' injury could mean UTSA leans on the ground game, and a healthy dose of McCormick is never a bad thing. The star back had 133 yards last week for his sixth-career rushing game of 100-plus and now faces a Louisiana Tech defense that's surrendering 415.0 yards per game, including 175 rushing last week. The Bulldogs also allowed Marshall to convert on 13-of-16 first downs in Week 7.
But all in all, Louisiana Tech should be able to shake off the loss — and even the complete shutdown of its run-game — to rebound on Saturday. After all, UTSA is no Marshall. And the Roadrunners' string of losses is likely weighing a whole lot heavier on them than last week's drop to a now-ranked top-25 team is on the Bulldogs.
Go with history — and the winning tradition — here.
Prediction: Louisiana Tech 28, UTSA 24
Podcast: Week 8 Preview and Predictions
(Justin Henderson photo courtesy of Louisiana Tech Athletics)