Head east: UTSA drops in on Herd
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- They're playing in their third year of college football.
They're second in Conference USA in home attendance.
They've already won their first league game - in their first try, no less.
Say hello to the Roadrunners of the University of Texas at San Antonio, the first of four new C-USA teams on Marshall's schedule. They are making their easternmost road trip ever this weekend, landing in Huntington to battle Marshall.
Kickoff time for the Thundering Herd's homecoming is 2 p.m. Saturday, with the game televised back to Texas but not locally.
The Roadrunners, coming off a 59-28 loss to Houston, remain one season away from bowl eligibility. But they have the full attention of Marshall's players, especially defensive players who have to solve a highly multiple offense with a seasoned quarterback.
"I know this week I've been watching more film than I've watched all year," said MU strong safety D.J. Hunter.
Arguably, the Roadrunners have the most upside of the six C-USA newcomers. Former Miami coach Larry Coker has proved to be a near-perfect choice to start the program from scratch, the Alamodome provides an NFL-caliber home field and the school sits in the heart of talent-rich Texas.
And with Austin 80 miles away, Houston 200 and Dallas 275, this team can compete for the hearts of San Antonio, which has a metro area population of 2.2 million.
So far, the program isn't doing a bad job, selling 14,702 season tickets for a 2013 home schedule that led off with Oklahoma State and Houston. Those two games produced an average of 36,732, second in C-USA to East Carolina's 44,075.
In 2011, the Roadrunners made their debut before 56,743 fans who watched a 31-3 win over Northeastern (Okla.) State. (For perspective, the Division II school played before 34,598 over the entire 2012 season.)
"It's something that I'll never forget," said UTSA quarterback Eric Soza. "Running through that tunnel and hearing the fans go crazy, and hearing the announcer say that 'San Antonio football has arrived!' It still sends chills down my neck."
The University of Texas Board of Regents approved UTSA's athletics initiative in October 2008, then hired Coker away from ESPN in March 2009.
Even before the first players started a scrimmage-only 2010 season, the Roadrunners were admitted to the Western Athletic Conference and announced future games with Arizona, Houston, Colorado State and Virginia, with the Oklahoma State deal to follow.
The Roadrunners went 4-6 as a Championship Subdivision independent team in 2011, and went 8-4 overall, 4-4 in the WAC in 2012. Before that 2012 season started, the heavily raided C-USA lured UTSA to the fold, beginning July 1, 2013.
UTSA is 2-3 overall, having absorbed expected losses to Oklahoma State (56-35), Arizona (38-13) and Houston. But the Roadrunners, picked last in the West Division in the C-USA coaches' preseason poll, opened the season with a 21-13 victory at New Mexico and swatted Texas-El Paso 32-13 for their first C-USA win.
As one could guess, the Roadrunners are loaded with Texans - 14 hail from other states. Coker said more than 30 come from the San Antonio area.
But none of them tackled the level of competition they're facing this season. They all heard it was coming when they came to UTSA, but only Coker and his staff had experienced it.
In a way, Coker is launching the program all over again, even if he has 32 two-year lettermen listed on the two-deep. The Roadrunners have something to show for it, and are looking for more Saturday at Marshall.
"I think they've really bought in," Coker said. "I think it's a thing where they want to play in the highest level possible. We've moved up, some may say too fast. That's where we are, we play good teams every week.
"Someone told me we had the 11th-best schedule. I don't know if that's true or not, that's what one magazine said. Our kids really enjoy the challenge."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5140, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.