The University of Texas at San Antonio opened its 11th season of football Saturday night with a hard-fought 37-30 road win against the University of Illinois, the school’s first-ever Big Ten matchup.

The announced attendance for the game in Champaign, Illinois was 33,906.

The Fighting Illini started the season with a statement win over the Nebraska Cornhuskers, 30-22, sending a message this is not the same team that posted a losing record last year. Still, the Roadrunners are widely expected to improve on a 7-5 season and first bowl appearance last year.

Both teams began their seasons unranked nationally, but UTSA is considered a co-favorite along with Marshall and the University of Alabama at Birmingham to win the Conference USA title.

UTSA held the lead throughout the game as Illinois struggled to play catch-up. The Roadrunners were first to score late in the first quarter as senior quarterback Frank Harris capped a 94-yard drive with a 9-yard touchdown run to put the Roadrunners up by 7. The offense continued to roll, turning its first possession of the second quarter into a second Roadrunners touchdown from senior running back Brenden Brady.

Down 14-0, Illinois answered with a 31-yard touchdown pass from Artur Sitkowski to freshman wideout Deuce Spann to cut the deficit in half and get the crowd back in the game.

UTSA’s passing game set the tone early with Harris completing 13 of 22 pass attempts for 154 yards, and junior wide receiver Zakhari Franklin catching 8 passes for 123 yards in the first half, which ended with a muffed punt by Illinois that set up a late UTSA field goal. The Roadrunners led 20-14 at halftime.

UTSA struggled early in the third quarter, fumbling in Illinois territory. The Illini cashed in with a 52-yard field goal and cut the lead to 3, and then a quick 3-and-out kept the momentum going for Illinois.

The Roadrunners regained the momentum after junior running back Sincere McCormick returned to the game after going down with an injury earlier that same quarter. A 37-yard pass completion to junior Joshua Cephus led to another UTSA field goal to make it 23-17. Illinois kicker James McCourt kept Illinois in the game with two impressive 50-plus yard field goals in the third quarter, a school record.

Still, Illinois could never quite catch the visitors. UTSA got off to a quick start in the fourth quarter when Zakhari Franklin found the end zone for a 19-yard receiving touchdown that made it a 10-point Roadrunner lead. Illinois was able to score again after a targeting penalty called on UTSA led to a touchdown. That brought Illinois back to a three-point deficit with 10 minutes remaining.

The suspense was short-lived. UTSA went back to the ground game to run down the clock and and score yet another touchdown as running back Brenden Brady broke free for a 33-yard touchdown run, his second of the game. That gave UTSA the 37-27 lead it would ride until a late fourth-quarter drive by Illinois was stopped and ended with a field goal.

The Roadrunner defense made crucial stops to stop yet another late Illinois drive, one that came down to the very last second with an incompletion that was just inches from giving Illinois another touchdown and the chance to tie the game as the clock ran down.

The Roadrunners stayed on top from start to finish. UTSA quarterback Frank Harris threw for 280 yards, running for one touchdown and throwing for another. Receiver Zakhari Franklin ended the game with 155 yards and a touchdown.

After starting off the season with a win against Illinois, UTSA is set host Lamar University next Saturday at 5 p.m. at the Alamodome for the team’s home opener. The Lamar Cardinals are coming off a 47-3 win against North American University. Tickets can be purchased here.

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Alejandro Martinez

Alejandro Martinez is a San Antonian studying finance at the University of Texas at San Antonio.