In this weird season, Weber State football has seen more than its share of firsts. And for the most part, that’s a good thing.
Playing during a pandemic and all the hoops that come with that were new, of course. The moving of the season from the fall, where it had always been planted, to the spring was one of the bigger one. The constant testing. The weeks-long absence of seemingly healthy players who had the misfortune of being in the same room as someone who wasn’t. Each day was a new experience.
Somewhat lost amid that chaos, though, are all the firsts the Wildcats were in control of, or at least set themselves up for. Last July, even before the season shift, the program for the first time was favored to win the Big Sky Championship in both the media and coaches polls. Then the team cashed in on those expectations. It ranked as high as a program-best second in the nation before winning its first outright (but fourth straight) conference title. Seventh-year coach Jay Hill then picked up his first but long-deserved Big Sky Coach of the Year award.
But the season isn’t over, and as Weber State heads into the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, it would like to pack in one — or maybe even two — more new experiences. Namely, the Wildcats are looking to reach the FCS championship game for the first time. Then they want to win it.
“At Weber State we’re trying to build a winning atmosphere, that’s what we have been doing,” said senior wide receiver Rashid Shaheed, “[building] a winning culture.”
The quest begins Saturday against Southern Illinois at Stewart Stadium in Ogden, where the past two Wildcats teams have combined to produce another novelty: a record 11-straight home wins. The game will be the first meeting between the Wildcats and Salukis (5-3), who are making their first playoff appearance since 2009. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, it will be played in front of about 4,300 fans.
“The fans here have been great about coming out. And even with the limited capacity, it’s still been an awesome environment,” said senior linebacker Conner Mortenson. “And hopefully we can max it out as much as we can.”
In addition to maxing out their support, the Wildcats would like to max out their time on their home field. They’ll need a little help from Holy Cross to do that, however. Weber State, despite finishing last season No. 3 in the nation, climbing as high as No. 2 in the rankings this season and going 5-0, didn’t receive a top-four seed for the playoffs. Those went to No. 1 South Dakota State (5-1), No. 2 Sam Houston (6-0), No. 3 James Madison (5-0) and No. 4 Jacksonville State (9-2). With a win, Weber State would have to play the top-ranked Jackrabbits on the road in the quarterfinals, unless Holy Cross (3-0) pulls the upset. In that case, the Wildcats would host.
WEBER STATE VS. SOUTHERN ILLINOIS
At Stewart Stadium, Ogden
When • Saturday, 2 p.m.
Live Stream • ESPN3
One of the reasons Weber State might have gotten snubbed was its strength of schedule. Neither of the two teams directly beneath it in those July polls — No. 2 Montana and No. 3 Montana State — competed in the conference this spring. In fact, it didn’t play any team in the top six.
Hill said he didn’t think the lack of marquee names on the schedule will have an impact on what fans and foes see on the field.
For one thing, this is already a topsy-turvy bracket. For example, only 16 teams were selected instead of the traditional 24. North Dakota State, the defending champion and winner of eight of the last nine FCS titles, is also unseeded. And, the other 2019 finalist, James Madison, is the No. 3 seed despite finishing the regular season ranked No. 1 in the Stats Perform Top 25 poll.
For another, Hill’s team has shown a tenacity, especially in close contests, that gives him faith. And they’ve had plenty of those. Since their opener, the Wildcats haven’t won by more than five points this season. Two of those were come-from-behind victories, with the one over Northern Arizona the most notable. After giving up the lead with 17 seconds left after a pair of costly turnovers, Randall Johnson, who was filling in for injured starting quarterback Bronson Barron, threw a 50-yard Hail Mary for the win.
“Does that stuff prepare you? Absolutely,” Hill said. “We learned that, hey, you make those mistakes too many times and it’ll cost you. And so hopefully we’ve learned from that, we can move on.
“I know one thing: Our team is very resilient and a close game is not going to freak them out at the end.”
It also helps that last season, Hill’s team took a step forward toward winning the school’s first championship. It reached the semifinals for the first time, ultimately losing to James Madison.
“Definitely it contributes as far as us feeling like we belong in this setting,” said Mortenson, the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year. “In the playoffs, in the semifinals and eventually the finals and the championship.”
Weber State will be focused on taking that step forward to the May 16 final and securing itself one more first before the season finishes. If the team can do it, Mortenson hinted that because of all the other unusual circumstances this season, it could feel better than all the Wildcats’ other firsts combined.
“To overcome that and still have a season and win the championship is, in a way, yeah, it’s more rewarding in that aspect,” he said, “being able to overcome all of those just weird obstacles.”