The University of Texas at San Antonio’s history-making football season ended in disappointment Tuesday night as the Roadrunners fell to San Diego State 38-24 in the Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl.
During a season in which UTSA set a host of records and vaulted into national prominence, the Roadrunners’ quest for their first bowl victory in the football program’s short history remained out of reach. A noisy crowd of 15,801 at Frisco’s Toyota Stadium was made up predominantly of fans in orange, but it grew quiet early in the fourth quarter as UTSA fell behind by two touchdowns against a San Diego offense that wasn’t pretty but proved effective.
For the Roadrunners, winning a conference championship will have to be enough. Their 12 victories set a school record, and the Conference USA championship they won in thrilling fashion over Western Kentucky was another first to go along with a final ranking of 24th in the Associated Press poll.
“Like Coach [Jeff] Traylor is always saying, we did win the conference. … We are champions,” quarterback Frank Harris said. “But it’s tough for us right now. I feel bad for the seniors.”
UTSA struggled to convert in third-down situations and couldn’t put together sustained drives after the first quarter. Harris threw for two touchdowns, completing 22 of 36 passes but had a costly interception, and as the game ended he sat on the bench in tears as the rest of the team gathered to sing the alma mater.
Harris, however, will get an extra year of eligibility because of the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic and will return as a fifth-year senior as the Roadrunners expect to build on this season’s success.
“I’ll try to come back next year and win it,” he said.
UTSA’s record-setting season got off to a controversial start.
University President Taylor Eighmy announced the Roadrunners would no longer use the “Come and Take It” motto and flag, which had been part of the athletics program for the previous six years but had begun drawing fire for its association with white supremacy. Some fans and the chairman of the UT System Board of Regents criticized the move, saying it was a valued part of school tradition.
But the team’s winning streak soon relegated the controversy to a footnote, especially after UTSA announced in October it would move up to the more prestigious American Athletic Conference in the coming years. And when the team’s success began drawing attention around Texas and nationwide, Traylor emerged as a candidate for several higher-profile head coaching jobs, forcing UTSA to move quickly to sign him to a 10-year contract extension worth $28 million.
After the game, Traylor criticized his own performance, but didn’t fault his team.
“It was not lack of effort,” he said. “Our kids were fantastic. It’s my job to coach them better. End of story.”
For the Aztecs, winning without the backing of a home crowd wasn’t new. For the past two seasons, they haven’t played a true home game while their new stadium is under construction in San Diego, using a stadium more than 100 miles away in Carson, California. Nevertheless, their 12 wins this season set a school record.
With UTSA trailing 17-14 at halftime, the Aztecs (12-2) scored a quick touchdown on their first drive of the second half, making it 24-14. After Hunter Duplessis’ 41-yard field goal cut into the Aztecs’ lead, UTSA forced a punt but SDSU’s CJ Baskerville intercepted Harris’ pass and Aztecs quarterback Lucas Johnson connected with Tyrell Shavers on a 24-yard pass to give San Diego State a 31-17 lead with 2:39 to play in the third quarter.
UTSA’s offense showed signs of life on the next drive, with De’Corian Clark managing to stay inbounds to catch a 33-yard pass from Harris to highlight a touchdown drive that ended with Franklin’s 3-yard reception as the third quarter ended. But penalties hampered any shot at a comeback as UTSA’s defense was unable to rattle the Aztecs’ quarterback, who threw for three touchdowns, completing 24 of 36 passes for 333 yards.
“It was good to see him do it,” said San Diego State Head Coach Brady Hoke of Johnson, who has struggled with injuries. “He’s had some snippets of games where he’s looked like he did today.”
SDSU receiver Jesse Matthews, the game’s offensive most valuable player, caught 11 passes for 175 yards, including two touchdown receptions for SDSU.
The Roadrunners were without star running back Sincere McCormick, who had rushed for nearly 1,500 yards and scored 15 touchdowns this season, both school records. McCormick declared for the NFL draft, giving up his final two years of college eligibility.
San Diego State came into the game allowing opponents an average of less than 78 yards per game, and the Roadrunners surpassed that before the first quarter had even ended. Running back Brenden Brady had two carries on the Roadrunners’ opening drive that ended with Harris’ 12-yard touchdown pass to Clark.
The Aztecs answered with Johnson’s 20-yard pass to Matthews with 5:09 left in the first quarter before Brady put UTSA back on top 14-7, scoring on a 2-yard run with 2:02 left in the quarter. Taking advantage of a short field, SDSU tied the game on Johnson’s 11-yard pass to Matthews to cap a 54-yard drive with 9:14 left before halftime. Meanwhile, UTSA’s offense sputtered as the Roadrunners went three-and-out on one drive, failed to convert a fourth-and-one attempt and went three-and-out again, giving the Aztecs time to put together a 74-yard drive that ended with Matt Araiza’s 33-yard field goal.
After the game, Traylor said he didn’t want to talk about the team’s future, bright as it might be. But he hinted he wouldn’t feel down about the way the season ended for long.
“I’ve got to get Frank Harris ready to roll, right? I’ve got a bunch of young kids out there,” he said. “We’ve got big plans, so we’ve got to get to work.”
Alejandro Martinez contributed to this report.