CHAMPAIGN — As impressive as UTSA was on Saturday in beating Illinois 37-30, you’d never guess the Roadrunners’ football program is only a decade old.
Or that it was UTSA’s first time facing a Big Ten opponent.
“I’m just so thrilled for my kids,” UTSA coach Jeff Traylor said. “We’ve been together 21 months now, and they’ve believed in us since the day we got here. I might seem like I’m a little cocky. I’m really not.”
He had reason to be.
UTSA never trailed in its season opener as Frank Harris was 20 of 32 for 280 yards and a touchdown and ran for a second score. Sincere McCormick carried 31 times for 117 yards and Brenden Brady ran 11 times for 67 yards and two touchdowns. Zakhari Franklin caught 10 passes for 155 yards and a touchdown for the Roadrunners.
Artur Sitkowski was 22 of 42 passing for 266 yards and 3 touchdowns for Illinois. Reggie Love III rushed for 39 yards. Sitkowski got his first start for Illinois with Brandon Peters is out with a left, non-throwing shoulder injury.
Quarterback-turned-wide receiver Isaiah Williams caught 8 passes for 101 yards, while Daniel Barker hauled in 5 passes for 74 yards and two touchdowns. Deuce Spann, another converted quarterback, caught a 31-yard pass for a touchdown, his only reception of the game.
“This hurts, you know,” said Illinois coach Bret Bielema. “Against a non-conference opponent. And I don’t mean to take anything away from UTSA. They are a good football team and they came in here with a game plan and they executed it.”
Illinois nearly tied the game with seconds left, but an offensive pass interference call on Luke Ford pushed the Illini back to the 25. Sitkowski tried to hit Williams in the end zone with time expiring but the ball sailed over his head.
“We did enough things to hurt ourselves,” Bielema said. “We’re just not there yet. We’re working on it, but we’re not there yet.”
Illinois, which knocked off Nebraska in its season opener, started slowly and UTSA took advantage. The Roadrunners scored first on a 9-yard run by Harris with 1:32 left in the first quarter. The run capped an impressive 94-yard, 13-play drive. Brady then scored on a seven-yard run with 11:31 left in the second quarter and UTSA led 14-0.
Illinois answered with a 31-yard pass from Sitkowski to Deuce Spann with 9:21 left in the first half — Sitkowski’s first completion in four attempts.
After a UTSA field goal late in the second quarter, Illinois went 75 yards on 8 plays, ending with a 14-yard touchdown pass from Sitkowski to Daniel Barker. On the ensuing kickoff, the Illini’s Kerby Joseph touched the ball but couldn’t field it. UTSA recovered on the Illinois 21.
The Roadrunners settled for a field goal and led 20-14 at the half.
In the second half, the Illini’s James McCourt kicked field goals of 52 and 53 yards, his fifth and sixth career 50 yards-plus field goals, an Illinois school record.
HE SAID IT
Traylor: “We wanted to be the most visible defense tonight, and we were. Now we didn’t get any turnovers, and we’re sick about that. We dropped like five interceptions, we had balls on the ground we didn’t come up with. But we hit. We freaking hit on defense.”
Bielema: “They brought a lot of double-edge pressure, that’s for sure. Now we look at what happened today and get ready to go to Virginia next Saturday and play in a hostile environment.”
Illinois clearly misses starting quarterback Brandon Peters, out with a left shoulder injury suffered early in last week’s win over the Cornhuskers. While Sitkowski, a Rutgers transfer, has shown promise at times, the Illini will need Peters back sooner rather than later if they want to contend in the Big Ten.
Harris was impressive, as was the Roadrunners’ defense, which bent but didn’t break the entire game. UTSA has only fielded a football team for 10 years, and the win over Illinois was the program’s first Big Ten encounter.
UTSA hosts Lamar on Sept. 11.
Illinois travels to Virginia on Sept. 11.