Weber State endures gut-wrenching loss at end of fantastic season

James Madison wide receiver Riley Stapleton (10) makes the catch against Weber State defensive back Jeremy Maxwell (23) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs Friday, Dec. 8, 2017, in Harrisonburg, Va. (Daniel Lin/Daily News-Record via AP)

Harrisonburg, Va. • The funereal emotion at the postgame news conference following Weber State’s 31-28 loss to top-ranked James Madison on Friday night in the FCS quarterfinals belied the success that the Wildcats enjoyed this year.

In the preseason, coaches and media picked Weber State to finish fifth in the Big Sky Conference.

Instead, it shared the title with Southern Utah.

The Wildcats won a program-record 11 games, including their first one in the playoffs in nine years.

They won a second playoff game, this one against the rival Thunderbirds, and cemented their Big Sky supremacy.

Amidst all the achievements, it will take time to find the silver lining. Weber State, after all, seemingly had the defending national champion, victorious in its last 24 outings, beaten on its home turf at Bridgeforth Stadium.

The Wildcats could not have scripted a better start to the game. Cornerback Xequille Harry picked off Dukes quarterback Bryan Schor at midfield on the fourth play from scrimmage, and the Woods Cross High School graduate returned it to JMU’s 4-yard line. When Kevin Smith punched it in from a yard out, it marked the first touchdown the Dukes had given up in the first quarter all season.

“I just wanted to make plays to set our offense up with good field position,” said Harry. “Knowing their defense was one of the best in the country, I wanted to help our offense out as much as possible.”

In the second half, Weber State rose to the occasion, solving the puzzle that is JMU’s defense. The Dukes entered the night allowing just 8.8 points per contest, the lowest in the nation.

“Just looking into my brothers’ eyes, that’s what gave me the drive that made me play the way I did,” said sophomore running back Kevin Smith, who scored once on the ground and once through the air. “I wish I could play with them forever. We’re like a family.”

The loss ended a stellar senior season for dual-threat quarterback Stefan Cantwell, the Bingham High School graduate whose journey to Ogden included stints at two junior colleges and a church mission in Spokane, Wash.

“We had to keep going, we had to keep pushing, we had to keep driving the ball,” said Cantwell. “Our defense was just on the field too long.”

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