Date: December 2nd , 6:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network
Location: Alamodome, San Antonio, Texas
Teams: North Texas (7-5) at UTSA (10-2)
Event: The 2022 Conference USA championship game
The UTSA Roadrunners have an opportunity to put their program name among the greats of the league in just heir tenth season in the league. WKU, UAB, FAU have all won two league titles. UTSA won their first last season, beating WKU in a high-scoring, entertaining affair in the Alamodome. We find ourselves back again in San Antonio, this time with a matchup with in-state rival UNT.
Close league-watchers will remember the battle on October 22nd, in which UTSA’s Frank Harris led his team down the field with no time-outs to score the game-winner. On that drive he converted a 4th-and-2 pass by mere inches, found his tight end Oscar Cardenas — a guy who has a highlight reel of big-time catches in crucial moments — for a one-hand grab, and then found DeCorian “JT” Clark for six.
UTSA enters the game as around a 9-point favorite, and boosters and program people are pushing the marketing to get 50K in the Dome for the final CUSA title game in San Antonio 1. Last year San Antonio brought a program top-ten crowd, and this should be somewhere in that ballpark. North Texas is much closer than Bowling Green, home of last year’s opponent and so should be bringing a sizable contingent.
All signs are pointing toward a coronation for UTSA coach Jeff Traylor, QB Frank Harris and the program that has had a ton of success in three short years. Traylor has owned the league since he has arrived, and boasts a perfect 8-0 record this season. Last year would have had the same perfection if it were not for pesky North Texas in Denton. UTSA got some measure of revenge thanks to the above-mentioned win in San Antonio but fate would have them repeat the effort.
UTSA comes in ranked in the top-25 –as they were entering Denton late last November — and UNT are underdogs again.
Seth Littrell, UNT’s head coach, had similar praise and fanfare earlier in his career when he led NT to the league title game vs FAU in 2017. Then he was blown out of the game by Lane Kiffin’s mighty FAU squad. That was the second time FAU had done so in one season. Littrell has a weak record in “big” games, including the 0-1 record in CUSA title games, but also an 0-5 record in bowl games. The online fanbase is weighing whether or not this run to the title game is good for the long-term health for the program. Some are hoping for an NT win to boost Seth’s resume so both parties can move on on good terms.
It is a strange set up, but it make sense if you consider the recent NT history. Since the 2018 heights, NT has underperformed and had an awful defense. This season the defense is slightly above league average — depending on your measure — but has been much better since Phil Bennett came to coordinate it. The veteran coach has put in a bend-but-don’t-break scheme that has kept big plays down, and relies on transfer defensive linemen backed by four-year linebacker KD Davis to stop the run. It has worked and this defense held UTSA’s high-scoring offense down for much of the October matchup.
UTSA comes in hurt and missing pieces — JT Clark is done for the year, as is safety Wisdom — but has still managed to be superior to all of CUSA. The key is Harris’ ability to extend plays, and find his big-play receiving corps. Zakhari Franklin, Josh Cephus, and of course Cardenas. The run game is primarily Harris’ legs, but Kevorian Barnes has brought explosive runs to the mix.
North Texas wants to run, and RPO their way to big plays via WR Jyaire Shorter, who has something like touchdowns on 30% of his career catches. He also is among the nation’s leaders in yard-per-catch. The Mean Green run game has lost two-and-a-half of their four-headed monster two injury. We will see a lot of Ikaika Ragsdale, an explosive running back from Nevada that can also catch-and-run. Behind him will be Isaiah Johnson, a bruiser who is on a hurt ankle that he sustained celebrating the go-ahead score vs this same team. Ayo Adeyi is a burner and is listed on the two-deep but has been missing in action for a long while. Don’t expect too much from him.
UTSA’s defense shut down the NT run game with their fast-flowing attack, jumping in whatever looked or smelled like a run. North Texas was able to hit them on long pass plays over the top to Shorter, Roderic Burns, and the explosive tight end Var’Keyes Gumms. The Runners made it very difficult, however, with Austin Aune throwing an interception and almost throwing another early in the game.
Expect UTSA do ask more of the same questions: Can Austin Aune throw under pressure, with the run game being taken out of the equation?
Expect UNT to try to make Harris stay in the pocket, flood the field with defenders and spy Harris when he tries to run. UTEP had some success collapsing the pocket on their way to a 24-0 lead early last week, but they didn’t have the chops in the secondary to hang with the UTSA WRs.
North Texas boasts a nice group, with young Ridge Texada intercepting Harris last time out, and breaking up a couple others. He was the guy guarding Clark on the last-second TD, by the way.
UTSA Game Plan
Keep Harris upright. He will be asked to do-it-all again and has showed in his career that no moment is too big for him. He has been asked to engineer game-winning drives so often and has been so successful that we might not consider that it is probably asking a bit too much of him? He is calm under pressure, has speed and agility and keeps his eyes down field when scrambling. He can get a little loose with the ball and will throw and interception.
UTSA will take the running lanes in front of them. They ran for 200+ against NT between the tackles and with Harris scrambles. That worked. They also committed lots of self-inflicted mistakes, like penalties and missed assignments. The line is hurting and hodgepodge, but should be good enough give Harris enough time to work his magic.
Defensively we should see more of the same. Austin Aune can sling it, but is interception-prone. UTSA will bring pressure to stop the run and dare Aune to find his guys. They’ll also mix in some coverage changes on passing downs and ask Aune to find his guys in zones, something he is not great at. The key this time is in maintaining the aggression stopping the run, while also doing a better job staying with Gumms et al in the secondary.
UNT Game Plan
North Texas has spent the weeks trying to get healthy after a rash of injuries and sickness. The run game has not been as potent leading up to this game as it was leading up to the October matchup, but it is still the identity of the team. NT will ask a lot of Ragsdale both running and catching, but will need Shorter to come up big. He is known to drop some easy ones, and that has plagued him throughout his stellar career. Meanwhile, Austin Aune will again be asked to make big time throws.
He converted a late 3rd-and-15 deep in his own territory against UTSA last time, and led his offense to three go-ahead scores in the second half. There is enough arm-talent and experience to upset this UTSA squad, but he does not have the same aura as his counterpart.
Defensively, the idea is to generate a pass rush with the front four, and the occasional spy-pressure. KD Davis and Kevin Wood both brought timely pressure and Bennett mixed up pressure and coverage well to make Harris think. Overall NT bottled up Harris well enough (sub 250 passing, 2 TDs and 1 int) but tired late and the run defense suffered.
UTSA will try to take advantage of their size on the outside, but NT did a good job for most of the game battling — Zakhari Franklin caught 6 for 21 yards for example.
Other Things To Watch
CR has always contended that the old West division would have the most support for the league title games. Western and Middle have hosted, but with limited support. UTSA has hosted one and set a record for attendance. This one is expected to be near 50K.
The Alamodome gets loud, and that and other things have meant opposing coaches have complained about either “piped in noise” (Houston) or “noise at the wrong time” (UTEP). For the casual, just know that it is very loud and that will have an impact on both squads. Last year as UTSA was driving vs UAB, the players were screaming at the fans to “shut up!” as they were loud at the wrong time. Opponents have to change the way they communicate changes at the line.
The league will award its football title to a team that is leaving the league no matter what. Both UTSA and UNT will join the AAC next season.
This is a rivalry game, and it would be great for the league were it not for the above fact. UTSA is a good program on a nice run and the league is losing them at the wrong time. That said, WKU was in this last year and was a Rice upset away from repeating the feat.
UTSA are 8-point favorites and have the most talent, the home-field, and are playing better in recent weeks. I think it is close for a bit before UTSA finds something to exploit and takes full advantage. The NT-UAB game comes to mind where UAB dominated three quarters but NT had one explosive 21-point quarter that put them in the lead.
An NT upset win looks like we saw with UTSA-UTEP, UTSA-WKU, and UTSA-NT, where the defense is able to get to Harris, and he throws wayward passes. The secondary is vulnerable to getting smoked one-on-one, even though their guys are confident. UTEP got loose, WKU won often, and NT was running free back there.
A UTSA win looks like what we saw with any of the UTSA wins vs good teams (NT, WKU, UAB). Frank Harris is always good to make a game-winning play and the staff is willing to be aggressive and go for wins and not ties. There is enough play-making between Franklin, Cephus, and Cardenas to win a one-v-one (see the Cardenas catch vs UNT, Houston, vs UAB last year) that a close game gives the advantage to UTSA. Similarly, UTSA’s defense is aggressive and finds ways to get the stop they need to win.
Prediction: UTSA 38 NT 20
for the foreseeable future. UTSA will join the AAC along with five others including opponent UNT↩