UTSA head coach Jeff Traylor is tired of moral victories. He wants real ones, and he got his wish last week as his Roadrunners ripped off a 31-28 home win over WKU.
That feels better.
Especially now that it's three consecutive triumphs — two to start the Conference USA slate — with another expected out of Friday night's conference tilt with the struggling FIU Panthers.
The Roadrunners, who are the defending C-USA champs, are heavy road favorites against the Panthers. But they won't go calling it four straight victories just yet.
"It's easy (to stay focused) because we were a 42-point favorite against Texas Southern [two weeks ago] and it was 21-17 at halftime," Traylor told reporters in the lead-up to this Week 7 game. "And that week, I heard Coach (Nick) Saban say, 'Either the guys that make those spreads are really, really off or the team that has the huge favorite advantage listens to it and it affects their preparation.' Either way, something is wrong …
"And we've already learned from it."
This has helped UTSA (4-2, 2-0 C-USA) find some momentum, outscoring the Tigers from the FCS ranks 31-7 in the second half of that game, followed by a 45-30 road win over a Middle Tennessee team that was coming off of its massive upset of Miami, and then last week's victory over the Hilltoppers.
Meanwhile, FIU fell at home to UConn last week 33-12, dropping the Panthers to 2-3 overall. This also includes a 73-0 whitewashing on the road against WKU two weeks ago, but last Saturday's loss to the Huskies stung more, according to first-year Panthers head coach Mike MacIntyre.
"This was an extremely disappointing night for us," he told reporters. "They definitely beat us, but in a lot of ways, I feel like we gave them a lot of opportunities that they made the most of.
"We outgained them and lost (badly) — that goes back to not finishing drives and not making plays on later downs on both sides of the ball. We have to coach them better on different details of the game so that we don't have some of the issues we had (last Saturday)."
UTSA at FIU
When UTSA Has the Ball
The upswing for UTSA revolves around the man under center, senior quarterback Frank Harris. He has been putting up big numbers recently, including setting new school records in back-to-back weeks.
Two weeks ago against FCS Texas Southern, he threw for 392 yards in the 52-24 victory and then topped that with 414 in the 45-30 win at Middle Tennessee. Last Saturday, he threw for 275 yards while adding another 61 on the ground and contributed two touchdowns to the Roadrunners' 31-28 win over WKU.
"Their quarterback, Frank Harris, is a dynamic player who can do a lot on offense," MacIntyre said. "I actually played against him when I was (defensive coordinator last year) at Memphis. He does a really good job."
Good enough to be the fourth-best passer in the nation in yardage — with 1,997 — while completing 68.9 percent of his passes. He's also been responsible for 18 total touchdowns thus far – 13 passing (with five interceptions) and five rushing.
Harris has needed to be so prolific, especially with UTSA's growing injury concerns along its offensive line. The latest blow is the loss of right tackle Makai Hart, who joins Demetris Allen as being shelved for the season, while Venly Tatafu, Ernesto Almaraz, and Payne He'Bert are all questionable for Friday night's game.
But this hasn't seemed to slow down the Roadrunners much when they have the ball. They lead the conference and are 11th nationally in total offense at 498.3 yards per game while averaging 37.3 points per contest (second in C-USA, 27th in FBS). Harris has been doing a lot of the damage with his arm but he's also been part of a ground game that's averaging 148 yards per game and has produced 13 touchdowns. Breden Brady leads the way with 386 yards and is tied with Harris for the team lead in rushing touchdowns (five). Trelon Smith also has been involved with 178 yards and two scores.
Three different receivers — Joshua Cephus, Zakhari Franklin, and De'Corian Clark — have recorded 39 or more receptions and each over 540 receiving yards to rank in the top five in Conference USA in both categories. Clark and Franklin also are among the top 10 nationally in touchdown catches with seven and six, respectively.
Add it all up and it's scary production for an FIU defense that just gave up 402 yards, 295 of those on the ground, to a typically offensively challenged UConn team. The Panthers also have surrendered 12 touchdown passes so far with only two interceptions. One of those belongs to defensive back CJ Christian, who is out for the season because of a shoulder injury.
When FIU Has the Ball
If there was a bright spot to the Panthers' loss to UConn last week, it was in the 409 yards the Panthers gained. The effort was led by sophomore quarterback Grayson James, who was 28-of-43 for 256 yards, albeit with two interceptions.
"The quarterback is a good football player," UTSA head coach Jeff Traylor said of James. "He can run around. He's from Texas, so I'm sure he'll be excited to play us."
For the season, James is completing 62 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and four interceptions. He's also run for 93 yards on 39 carries (2.4 ypc). The problem is that FIU can't score. The Panthers' 16.6 points per game are last in Conference USA and 125th nationally. Their only touchdown last week was a 47-yard run by leading rusher Lexington Joseph. It was his first rushing touchdown this season.
Joseph and fellow running back EJ Wilson Jr. are averaging a collective 4.6 yards per carry but just a shade under 70 yards per game.
Tyrese Chambers has been a valuable target in the passing game with 262 yards and three touchdowns on 27 catches, but the senior wide receiver is a game-time decision due to an undisclosed injury. Like UTSA, FIU also is dealing with injuries to its offensive line.
"Lyndell (Hudson Jr.) went down. And (John) Bock wasn't able to practice all week, but he was able to play in the game. And we had to kick Julius (Pierce) out to tackle," MacIntyre said earlier this week. The coaching staff had to throw walk-on Ming Tjon and redshirt freshman Wyatt Lawson on the field against UConn.
The projected starting five of Bock, Pierce, Shamar Hobdy-Lee, Rey Burnett, and Jacob Peace, has been on the field together for less than half of the offensive snaps thus far. That's not good for an already undermanned Panthers offense, although the Roadrunners have their own injury concerns on the other side of the ball, particularly along the defensive line.
UTSA certainly hasn't been shutting teams down (33.0 ppg, 447.8 ypg), but some of that is due to the caliber of competition faced. The Roadrunners opened the season against Houston before facing Army and then Texas, and last week it was WKU. FIU's offense certainly doesn't compare to any of those teams, or even Middle Tennessee for that matter.
What is good — and expectedly so — is UTSA. That's why Traylor has already been mentioned as a candidate to be the next head coach of the Colorado Buffaloes.
But for now, he's the Roadrunners' main man, and he's got more pressing concerns as his team looks to defend its Conference USA title.
"It's just the injuries that concern us right now," Traylor said. "If we had our O-line depth and our D-line depth, I'd say we're fixing to go on a tear right now. But we don't, so it's going to be a lot of close games, like they have been all year. And we just have to find a way — we just have to keep finding a way."
Despite the injuries, UTSA has rattled off three straight wins and is a heavy favorite to make it four in a row against a seemingly overmatched FIU team that isn't at full strength itself.
Points could be plentiful in this one but expect the final score to tilt heavily toward the visitors, who will improve to 3-0 in conference play.
Prediction: UTSA 54, FIU 35
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