First Look

FIRST LOOK: Montana State-Weber State showdown set for Friday in Ogden


Two of the Big Sky Conference’s most physically formidable programs have been on a collision course for what seems like years. And Friday in Ogden, Utah, Weber State and Montana State finally collide.

Under the direction of eight-year head coach Jay Hill, the Wildcats are trying to add to a streak of five consecutive playoff appearance and four straight shares of Big Sky Conference titles. The Wildcats have done it on the shoulders of a bruising defense, sharp special teams and the ability to win close games.

Under Jeff Choate, Montana State reemerged as a Big Sky contender thanks to a take no prisoners style build on a bruising rushing attack and a defense dead set on turning games into brawls.

The last time Montana State and Weber State squared off, the Bobcats were in Choate’s third season and operating with converted linebacker Troy Andersen at quarterback.

During the 2019 season, the Wildcats and the Bobcats did not play during a season in which both bullied their way to playoff seeds and first round byes in the FCS playoffs. Both teams saw their seasons end in the Final Four, Weber advancing to the semifinals for the first time ever and Montana State making its first trip that far in 35 years.

Nearly two years later, Montana State and Weber State will play once again. Friday night in Ogden, a game with massive implications for the Big Sky title and the playoff race will play out on ESPN U.

“Getting through that stretch of games that I think a lot of people thought we were supposed to win, and doing that, and now getting ready for a big game against a team that has had its way the last several years and the opportunity to get to play on a big stage, that’s a big opportunity for our guys,” MSU first-year head coach Brent Vigen said.

“Quick week so we were back at it on Wednesday and I think the guys have responded real well and we are halfway home as far as our preparation goes.

“You play the game whenever they tell you to…an 8 o’clock kick, fortunately, we have played under the lights already once this year and the benefit of us getting an opportunity for us to play on ESPN U far outweighs the late kickoff.”

Weber State has its back against the collective wall already. The Wildcats enter Friday night with a 2-3 overall record that includes wins over Dixie State (41-3) and last week at Cal Poly (38-7) plus losses at Utah (40-17), James Madison (37-24) and UC Davis (17-14).

Montana State has been rolling for the first half of the first season under Vigen’s direction. The Bobcats have won five games in a row, including three straight to begin Big Sky play. MSU defeated Portland State 30-17 on the road before home wins over Northern Colorado (40-7) and Cal Poly (45-7) to enter the game with a No. 9 national ranking.

“I hope that we have had the correct sense of urgency every week but I think that human nature would also say that there is a heightened awareness of this game,” Vigen said. “I think our guys handled their preparation like we want them to, very business like. We’ve preached not caring who or where we play and our guys have taken that mindset.”

The Wildcats have largely different primary standouts from the last time they played the Bobcats. Offensive lineman Iosua Opeta and defensive lineman Jonah Williams are in the NFL. All-American defensive end Adam Rodrigues and All-Big Sky linebacker LeGrand Toia have graduated. Record-setting kicker Trey Tuttle did not use his final year of eligibility. Quarterback Jake Constantine has grad transferred to too many schools to count.

Hill’s roster still does feature transcendent kick returner/wide receiver Rashid Shaheed and All-American running back Josh Davis. Meanwhile, Montana State still has many if not most of its usual suspects leading the way.

From offensive linemen like Lewis Kidd and Taylor Tuiasosopo to running back Isaiah Ifanse to stud defensive linemen Chase Benson and Amandre Williams to Andersen, who is now playing inside linebacker, many of the most talented players gifted to the program by Choate remain.

The next of a string of primetime Big Sky showdowns commences at Stewart Stadium on Friday night. Montana State last won in Ogden in 2013.

“They are certainly a program that are a mark in our league, I would certainly say that,” Vigen said. “We have to be well prepared and our guys have to be ready to go on Friday.”


Location: Ogden, Utah

Nickname: Wildcats

Founded: 1889. The coeducational, public university began as the Weber Stake Academy, then changed its name to the Weber Academy, the Weber Normal College and Weber College, becoming a junior college in 1939 and Weber State College in 1962. The school earned University status in 1991.

Enrollment: The university has 26,681 students and an endowment of $155.2 million.

Stadium: Stewart Stadium. The picturesque stadium along the Wasatch Front was named Wildcat Stadium from its opening in the 1950s until its renaming for Elizabeth Dee Shaw Stewart in 1998. The multi-purpose stadium holds 17,312 and is sits 4,760 feet above sea level.

The Wildcats have had two home games this season: one against James Madison that drew 11,222 and two weeks ago against UC Davis that drew 6,802.


The Coach: Jay Hill, seventh season and eighth year at season at Weber State.

As has been well chronicled, since Hill turn over at Weber, the Wildcats have incrementally improved each season, a climb that now has the program operating among the nation’s elite. Before Hill arrived, Weber had made the playoffs twice…ever. Now the Wildcats are gunning for their sixth straight postseason appearance. WSU had two playoff wins in its history, a total equaled in 2017 alone. Hill and the Wildcats have won three more playoff games and five overall.

Weber State head coach Jay Hill and Montana State head coach Jeff Choate pictured here in 2018/ by Brooks Nuanez

Hill played for Ron McBride at Utah before beginning his coaching career on McBride’s staff in 2002 with the Utes. Hill took over a Weber program McBride led from 2005 until 2011 that was in shambles when Hill took over before the 2014 season. John L. Smith’s quick stop that led to Jody Sears’ brief two-year tenure gave Hill a team with two wins in each of the previous two seasons.

Hill’s first team won two games in 2014. The Wildcats had a winning record, including a 5-3 mark in Big Sky Conference play, in 2015, including posting their first win at Washington-Grizzly Stadium over Montana since 1987 during that 6-5 campaign.

Weber made the playoffs for the first time since 2009 in 2016 and ripped off 11 wins en rout to a share of the Big Sky title and a berth in quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs in 2017. Both seasons included decisive wins over Montana State – 45-27 in 2016 and 25-17 in Bozeman in 2017. WSU beat Weber 34-24 in Ogden in 2018 in the last meeting between the two teams.

Wildcats have won 33 of their last 39 games in league play. Hill is 40-15 in Big Sky play, 54-34 overall.

“I had a lot of respect for what they did in 2019,” Vigen said, also mentioning Wyoming was set to open against Weber to start the 2020 fall season when Vigen was still the offensive coordinator in Laramie. “You certainly do your history check and you learn about how they have gotten to that point, impressive.

“He’s got them on a national stage. How he’s went about it has them succeeding at not just a Big Sky level but a national level.”


Bronson Barron, quarterback, 6-3, 215, freshman

Bronson Barron

The prospect from nearby American Fork, Utah already has quite the story coinciding with his time at Weber State. He went on an LDS mission in February of 2018, returning to the Wildcats in time for the spring of 2021 season.

He went 17-of-27 for 312 yards and four touchdowns in his first collegiate start in a win over Idaho State. He ended up throwing for 1,071 yards and seven touchdowns last spring as Weber won the league title but he also missed time in games because of injury.

Barron threw for 213 yards and a touchdown in WSU’s loss at Utah and threw 20 passes the following week against Dixie State before getting knocked out of the game.

Kylan Weissner threw two touchdowns and ran for two more last week against Cal Poly before suffering an ankle injury. Hill said Barron was expected to return after Weber’s bye week, which occurred last week. In seven career games, Barron has completed 56 percent of his passes for 1,374 yards, nine touchdowns and vie interceptions.

Weisner threw for 545 yards and four touchdowns in Barron’s absence.

“They have had to play more quarterbacks this year than they wanted to I’m sure,” Vigen said.

“The extra week for them is certainly an advantage for them. The extra day and week certainly plays in your favor. I think the quarterback change, anticipated change — we feel pretty strongly about what we think is going to happen — but even with that being said, they have played multiple guys in games injuries aside.”

Rashid Shaheed, wide receiver/kick returner, 6-0, 180, senior

Nostalgic feelings and cherished memories aside, Shaheed is the greatest kick returner in certainly Weber State and most likely Big Sky Conference history. He enters his final season at WSU as a three-time All-American and a three-time All-Big Sky selection as a kick returner.

Weber State All-American returner Rashid Shaheed/ by Brooks Nuanez

He took five kickoffs to the house during his first three seasons at Weber. He took one 100 yards for a score against Utah for his Big Sky Conference career-record sixth KR for a TD.

In his career, Shaheed has returned exactly 47 each kicks and punts. He is averaging nearly 30 yards per kick return and more than 13 yards per punt return.

“One thing we really have done well is cover,” Vigen said. “So that will be up to our guys so to speak. We are not going to be afraid of him. I think our guys on our kick coverage and our punt coverage have done a good job and this will be one of our tests.”

That’s not to mention the San Diego native’s prowess as a wide receiver, which has developed from adequate to impactful over the last few years. He has caught 120 passes for 1,697 yards and 15 touchdowns, averaging 14.1 yards per catch in his WSU career.

This season, he has 13 catches for 228 yards (17.5 yards per catch) and a pair of touchdowns.

Ty MacPherson, wide receiver, 6-0, 190, junior

Ty MacPherson

With All-American running back Josh Davis receiving less action in part to preserve his health and part because he got banged up against Cal Poly in an otherwise lopsided game, Weber has had to spread the love around offensively.

MacPherson has shown flashes between the fall of 2019 and the most recent spring season. He entered his junior year this fall with 55 catches for 911 yards and five career touchdowns.

This season, the smooth wide receiver has caught 17 passes for 200 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Davis, a multiple-time All-American who rushed for more than 1,100 yards in each 2018 and 2019, is expected to be back to full strength on Friday. The former Utah Gatorade Player of the Year has rushed for more than 3,000 yards and 22 touchdowns in his decorated career.


George Tarlas, defensive end, 6-4, 260, junior

George Tarlas

Hill has established a reputation as an elite recruiter of defensive line talent. From McKay Murphy to Williams to edge speed demon Adam Rodriguez, some of the best defensive linemen in the FCS have roamed along Weber State’s defensive front.

Tarlas seems to be the next in line. He first burst onto the scene filling in for Rodriguez back in 2019 and had four sacks in one game to earn Big Sky Conference Player of the Week honors. He finished that season with nine sacks despite playing behind Williams and Rodriguez when both were healthy.

The native of Chalkida, Greece has three sacks and three forced fumbles this season already, giving him 17 sacks, 21 tackles for loss and six forced fumbles in his career thus far.

Conner Mortensen, linebacker, 6-0, 210, senior

Conner Mortensen

The former walk-on blazed his way to Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year and All-American honors during the abbreviated spring season. His 11.5 tackles per game led the league.

He was also Weber’s leading tackler in 2019, rolling up 104 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss.

He has now played in 49 career games and has 206 tackles along with 27 tackles for loss, including 20 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks so far this season.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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