Many believed Weber State deserved a spot in this year’s FCS playoff field.
In the first 25 minutes of football in Ogden, Utah, Josh Davis and the Wildcats showed exactly why.
Weber State ran the ball at will early on against a North Dakota squad that was one of the toughest defensive lines in the Big Sky Conference during the Fighting Hawks’ brief stint in the league (2012-2018).
The Missouri Valley Football Conference version of UND struggled to get a foothold defensively all afternoon. But the Fighting Hawks certainly didn’t roll over, even though Weber State held a 24-0 lead.
Davis, a former All-American and winner of the 2018 Jerry Rice Award for Best Freshman FCS, has struggled with injuries for the past two seasons. Still, he had more than 100 yards in rushing and his second rushing touchdown of the day to put WSU 6:25 in the third quarter to a 38-17 lead.
But North Dakota quarterback Tommy Schuster threw two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to take the heat off the hosts and narrow the lead to a touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
Weber State’s normally excellent defense buckled up after UND’s final possession and forced a turnover on downs to save a 38-31 win in front of a 4,495 crowd at Stewart Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
“Tough game, hard-fought game and we knew it was going to be like this,” said Jay Hill, Weber State’s ninth-year head coach after going up to 6-5 in FCS playoff games. “Coach (Bubba) Schweigert is doing a phenomenal job with his team. They’re always tough, they always play hard and they don’t make a lot of mistakes.
“You have to earn that, even if we were up early 24-0. We knew they wouldn’t give up.”
Davis rushed for 129 yards on 21 carries, including a 30-yard touchdown as part of WSU’s game-opening sprint with 24 unanswered points. The Wildcats finished the game with 330 rushing yards in a game with a first-half snowstorm and wet field conditions after the half.
WSU quarterback Bronson Barron completed just five passes, including a 46-yard bomb, to score WSU’s first goal after 10 minutes. Damon Bankston rushed 15 times for 122 yards and a score while Dontae McMillan added 12 carries for 64 yards and a rushing score.
“The way we handled the ball today was great,” Hill said. “I’ve been saying all along that we have a good O-line, we have good tight ends and we have a good back. Relying on this crew today was huge.”
Now, Weber State is likely to get the squad’s rematch hoped for and certainly deserved. Weber’s sixth FCS playoff win under Hill (and eighth all-time) helps the Wildcats advance to the second round of the 24-team tournament. WSU is playing in the round of 16 in the state of Montana.
On Oct. 22 earlier this season, Weber suffered his first loss of the season after a 6-0 start that included a 35-7 win over Utah State, WSU’s neighbor Mountain West 50 miles north in Logan.
Montana State quarterback Tommy Mellott ran like mad, amassing 273 rushing yards (the second-highest by a quarterback in a single game in Big Sky history). And that was way down the list of the most important storylines and wildest factors in one of FCS’ games of the year.
Weber State punter Grant Sands snatched the ball four times from the back endzone, a huge factor in Montana State’s 43-38 win in Bozeman. Now, 59 days later, the Wildcats have a chance to return to Bozeman.
“Win and advance,” Hill said. “There are no easy games in the playoffs and certainly not in North Dakota. We’ve played them enough times to know they would be a great opponent.
The last time Weber State played a Big Sky Conference rival was in the quarterfinals of the 2019 playoffs, when WSU defeated Montana 17-10 and advanced to the FCS Final Four for the first time in school history.
Photo courtesy of Weber State Athletics. All rights reserved.