The Arizona State Sun Devils showed exactly why Power 5 teams are hesitant to travel to against Group of 5 teams. Todd Graham‘s charges traveled to San Antonio on a short week sandwiched between a big out-of-conference match-up with Texas Tech and the conference opener with California. The UTSA Roadrunners were happily to oblige a lethargic Sun Devil effort. The Roadrunners certainly made Arizona State earn their victory, down to the very last play.
A Contrast of Style
Arizona State came into San Antonio with an offense that was clicking on all cylinders. The Sun Devils scored 112 points in their first two games, including a 68-55 defeat of Texas Tech one week ago. The team from Tempe was 12th nationally with a 56.7% third-down conversion rate and 16th with 554 yards per game on offense.
Graham, the Sun Devil coach, is in his fifth year with Arizona State — his fourth head coaching job.
The Roadrunners started off the season much differently. In their previous game, a 23-14 loss at Colorado State, UTSA finished with minus one rushing yards. The Roadrunners defeated Alabama State in Week 1.
Roadrunner coach Frank Wilson is in his first season as a head coach. Wilson has toiled for twenty years as a student assistant, at the prep ranks, and as a position coach at four different schools. His workman-like approach and his relatable personality made him a star on the recruiting trail. It’s also clearly rubbed off on his new team, the UTSA Roadrunners.
These two teams couldn’t be more different. A high powered, Power 5 offensive juggernaut and the Texas-tough, Conference USA team with a brand new coach.
Recipe For An Upset
The Roadrunners dialed up the proven formula for the big upset. Two huge Arizona State turnovers on special teams, taking advantage of those mistakes, capitalizing in the red zone, and controlling the pace of play.
The Roadrunners capitalized off of two Arizona State punt return fumbles, once in each half, to build a 28-12 lead halfway through the third quarter. The key for the Roadrunners, according to Wilson, was good tackling and a team effort on defense and putting together drives to keep the potent Sun Devil offense of the field.
That formula worked well in the first half. Roadrunner quarterback Dalton Sturm was able to improvise and get first downs through the air and on the ground. In addition to the two touchdowns, UTSA kept Manny Wilkins and the Sun Devil offense on the sideline. Sturm and the Roadrunner offense gained 10 first downs in the first half. Kalen Ballage, coming off a record-setting eight touchdown performance against Texas Tech last week, was held mostly in check in the first half, with 31 total yards. Ballage finished game with one touchdown on 62 yards rushing and 41 yards on five receptions. Michael Egwuagu led the UTSA defense all night, collecting 10 tackles.
A critical moment occurred late in the first half, when Wilson called a timeout with 1:14 left in the half. Arizona State faced a third down and long in their own territory, trailing 14-6. The Sun Devils would convert the first down and end up scoring a touchdown to go into the locker room down only two. While the call was meant to show confidence in his team — both offense and defense units — the risk versus reward was skewed far too away from UTSA’s favor.
Finishing The Game
The second half started much the same. UTSA put together a five-play, 92 yard drive to take control of the game. Sturm accounted for 94 yards on the drive between passing and rushing. UTSA would score again midway through the third quarter to 28-12 lead. But that would be the last time the Roadrunners would put points on the board.
Arizona State started to wear down the Roadrunners. Zane Gonzalez added two more field goals to cut the lead to 28-18 early in the fourth quarter. Gonzalez may have been the Sun Devil MVP for the game. He had four field goals on the evening, including two 54-yard bombs in the first half. Manny Wilkins was much more efficient in the fourth quarter, engineering five first downs on 4-of-6 passing and 99 yards. Arizona State’s game winning drive was an impressive nine play, 58-yard drive that showcased a balanced attack. Ballage capped the drive with his lone touchdown of the evening.
The Roadrunners weren’t able to match the second half success. After their touchdown midway through the third quarter, UTSA had four straight three-and-outs leading to a final drive that ended with an incompletion on 4th and 24 to end the game.
20 unanswered points from the good guys and we will leave the Alamodome with a 32-28 victory!!! pic.twitter.com/3Pnlw4fFfX
The Road Ahead
The Sun Devils have an extra day to get ready for conference play. They will host California next week. Arizona State’s defense must make adjustments and improvements after giving up 229 yards passing and 82 yards rushing from Sturm on the evening. California will stress the Sun Devil defense more than the Roadrunner offense.
The Roadrunners also will start conference play next week as they travel to Norfolk to face Old Dominion. Head Coach Wilson was adamant in the post game press conference about not accepting moral victories.
“We’ve got to learn how to finish” — UTSA Head coach frank wilson
“We’ve got to learn how to finish” was his message. But Wilson must see the improvement in a squad that was 3-9 last season. This is an upperclassmen-led team that has taken on Wilson’s workman-like, blue collar personality.
That might not have been enough for the upset on Friday night, but it is a recipe for success moving forward.