Ogden • One of the most meaningful drives in Weber State history produced exactly zero points. All the Wildcat offense did was kill the last five minutes of a tense battle, secure a victory in the first college football playoff game ever staged in Utah and keep coach Jay Hill from trying anything crazy in the end Saturday afternoon.
The finish of the Wildcats’ 21-19 win over Western Illinois hardly was as spectacular as the sunset framing Stewart Stadium. Even so, Hill loved watching quarterback Stefan Cantwell’s simple kneel-downs near the WIU goal line as Weber State concluded the program’s biggest breakthrough in nearly a decade.
Your turn, Southern Utah. The Thunderbirds will host Weber State next Saturday in the FCS playoffs’ round of 16, also SUU’s first postseason home game.
And the in-state duel, a rematch of SUU’s October victory in Ogden that merited a first-round bye, makes the whole thing even more fun. Having two Utah teams, the Big Sky Conference’s co-champions, meet for the right to qualify for the FCS quarterfinals? That’s good stuff.
“This is what we wanted for the last six weeks,” Hill said.
Hill tried just about everything in an effort to give his team a chance to advance. Most of them failed, actually. The Wildcats messed up two fake punts (a pass and a run) and a fake field goal (a double pass).
“Quite frankly, some of those fakes didn’t look very cool,” Hill said, “because we didn’t execute it.”
But the Wildcats succeeded on Cantwell’s fourth-and-1 keeper from Weber State’s 34-yard line in the fourth quarter, sustaining a touchdown drive that made it 21-12.
The Leathernecks (8-4) drove for a touchdown with 4:55 left to get within 21-19 — banking in the extra point, which seemed like a bad sign for the Wildcats. With two starting offensive linemen missing the game, Weber State struggled all day to run the ball. And now the offense was charged with eating up nearly five minutes, with WIU possessing three timeouts.
Those guys came through. “You could tell there was more excitement on that drive,” Cantwell said. “It was up to us.”
Hill spoke of “the softening effect” wearing down WIU’s defense. Something changed, that’s for sure. Cantwell’s toughness was a constant; so was tight end Andrew Vollert, whose least spectacular catch of the day was the most important, a 9-yard gain on third-and-8. Running back Kevin Smith, replacing the injured Treshawn Garrett, made the difference. He took tosses from Cantwell for 17, 8 and 9 yards, ultimately clinching the win.
Afterward, Hill asked for a stat sheet, trying to process everything that happened. A 10-2 record with a playoff win were only numbers he needed to make a case for “arguably the best team in Weber State history.”
The Leathernecks helped validate that claim in a duel that featured two phenomenal pass-catchers at the FCS level. WIU receiver Jaelon Acklin caught 10 passes for 116 yards, while frequently covered by WSU cornerback Taron Johnson, the Big Sky defensive player of the year. Vollert was just as good, with eight catches for 112 yards and a touchdown. Vollert turned a one-handed grab into a 50-yard play down the middle of the field, leading to Drew Batchelor’s second TD reception of the game for a 14-6 halftime lead.
The Wildcats came into this playoff game knowing their next opponent would be an in-state school, one way or another. They were hoping for a rematch with Southern Utah next weekend, as opposed to waiting nine months to face Utah in a 2018 season opener.
So now it gets interesting. After the school’s third playoff win, in front of 6,876 fans, the Wildcats will return to Cedar City, where they rallied from 22 points down in the last eight minutes to salvage a 2016 victory. And they’ll face a Thunderbird team that beat them 32-16 in October, when Cantwell was injured and two other quarterbacks struggled. Then again, SUU’s offense rolled up nearly 500 total yards.
The Weber State-Southern Utah winner likely will meet defending champion James Madison in the quarterfinals. Thanks to their bye, the Thunderbirds already have advanced further than ever in the playoffs. Another in-state battle awaits. It’s a reprise of the Beehive Bowl, only bigger.