Last month, Weber State’s new president launched a campaign encouraging students and alumni to brag about the successes they and others tied to the Ogden school have had. As part of the campaign, he and students are scheduled to speak at city council meetings around the state. He calls it the Louder and Prouder Tour.
The Wildcats football team is taking that idea even farther — about 2,000 miles farther, actually. Weber State will travel to Harrisonburg, Va., this weekend to celebrate its most recent success: reaching the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals for the first time in team history. As part of the festivities, the No. 3-seeded Wildcats will play No. 2 James Madison University on Saturday in a semifinal game nationally televised on ESPNU.
Most who have weighed in on the game favor the Dukes to win, which would send them to their third national final in four years. Weber State is set on defying those odds, though.
“We said we wanted to take another step forward this year, and this is part of that step. I don’t think we’ve finished it yet,” sixth-year Wildcats coach Jay Hill said. “We want to be mentioned with the elite teams in the country. This is three straight years going to the quarterfinals, now we’re going to the semifinal matchup. My players and myself are still not content with what we’ve done yet.”
In many ways, the Wildcats know what they’re in for. They played at Bridgeforth Stadium under nearly identical circumstances two years ago. The Dukes, the undefeated Colonial Athletic Association champions, were also favored in that game. In fact, they held the No. 1 overall seed after winning the title in 2016 and sweeping through the 2017 season without a loss.
Unseeded Weber State gave them a scare, however. The game came down to a 46-yard field-goal attempt by Dukes kicker Ethan Ratke that sailed through the uprights for a 31-28 win over the Wildcats.
James Madison fell to North Dakota State in the final. The Bison, this year’s top seed, also won the 2018 title and are playing No. 5 Montana State in the other semifinal Saturday. The final is scheduled for Jan. 11 in Frisco, Texas.
Hill said too many things have changed between the two programs to try to make comparisons between Saturday’s game against JMU and the one in 2017.
“It’s probably too far away,” he said. “It’s a new coaching staff they have this year. They might have some players left, but this will be a pretty new challenge for us.”
The Dukes are under first-year coach Curt Cignetti. In addition, just six players who were on the JMU roster in 2017 also play on this year’s team. One of those is Ratke.
Then again, few Wildcats will be bringing anything more than a historical grudge to the game, either. Just seven traveled with the team in 2017. Of those, four recorded a stat last week when the Wildcats made school history with their 17-10 retribution win over No. 6 Montana: junior RB Kevin Smith, senior LB Auston Tesch, senior DE Jonah Williams and junior DB Preston Smith.
In many ways, playing JMU will be like looking in the mirror for Weber State. Both teams lean heavily on their defense but have offenses that can do damage if ignored. To that end, both rank in the top three in the nation in sacks with more than 44 apiece and both have 17 interceptions on the season, tying them for seventh in the FCS.
Both also outplayed similarly defensive-minded teams in the quarterfinals. JMU held Northern Iowa — a team the Wildcats beat 29-17 in September — to zero yards rushing on 19 attempts in its 17-0 victory. Weber State, meanwhile, harassed Montana with six sacks, five interceptions and a block punt returned for a touchdown.
“I’m impressed with their defense. They tackle well. They play great pass defense,” Cignetti said of the Wildcats. “A lot of guys with interceptions. A lot of guys around the ball. And you can tell that they’ve been doing what they’ve been doing for a while cuz guys are always in the right place.”
The Wildcats feel like they’re finally in the right place now that they’ve reached the semifinals, but they’re not ready to be done. They’d like to add another stop to this tour. If they do, guarantee it’ll be louder and prouder than ever.
WEBER STATE AT JAMES MADISON
At Bridgeforth Stadium, Harrisonburg, Va.
Kickoff » Saturday, 4:30 p.m. MST
TV » ESPNU
Radio » KLO 1430 AM
Records » Weber State 11-3; James Madison 13-1
All-time series » James Madison, 1-0
About Weber State » The Wildcats reached their first FCS semifinals in four attempts by rallying to defeat Montana, 17-10. … Senior Adam Rodriguez tied a school record with four sacks, and the Wildcats had six total, in the win over the Grizzlies. … Weber State’s top running back, Josh Davis, left Friday’s game with a hip pointer after scoring early in the third quarter.
About James Madison » The Dukes have won 13 straight after losing their opener to West Virginia. … JMU leads the nation in total defense and rushing defense and ranks second in scoring offense, third in scoring defense and seventh in total offense ... The Dukes have won two national titles, in 2004 and 2016.