Game Preview

FIRST LOOK: Weber State comes to Missoula for Top 5 matchup

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MISSOULA, Montana — A crucial showdown for Big Sky Conference positioning descends upon Missoula on Saturday afternoon.

It’s been 10 years since Bobby Hauck last squared off against Weber State. In 2008 and 2009, the Wildcats were arguably Montana’s stoutest challengers during an elite run of success by the Grizzlies. Weber State beat UM 41-24 in Ogden, Utah in 2008, the lone conference loss the Griz suffered in Hauck’s final four seasons during his first tenure as head coach.

WSU made the FCS playoffs in 2008 and 2009 behind a core of former head coach Ron McBride’s most talented players, including Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year quarterback Cam Higgins, NFL Draft pick receiver Tim Toone and the late Trevyn Smith, one of the only four-time first-team All-Big Sky selections in conference history.

During Hauck’s time away — he left his alma mater after seven seasons to take the head coaching job at UNLV, a post he held for five seasons — WSU fell swiftly. McBride, who won 88 games at the University of Utah between 1990 and 2002, led Weber to 44 wins and a share of the 2008 conference title in seven seasons. He retired at the end of the 2011 season.

Weber State return man/wide receiver Rashid Shaheed (22) in 2018/by Weber State Athletics

John L. Smtih took over but never coached a game, leading to a domino effect that put the once-proud program in a hole. Hill has incrementally and impressively resurrected the Wildcats, leading them to new heights, including wins in 28 of their last 32 Big Sky games.

Although the Griz have not played Weber State since 2017 (a 41-27 WSU win in Ogden) and the Wildcats have not been to Missoula since 2015 (a 24-21 overtime win for their first at Washington-Grizzly Stadium since 1987) and the fact that Hauck has not played against WSU in 10 years, the Wildcats still look eerily similar to those McBride teams.

“I think they are similar in temperament to Coach Mac’s teams,” Hauck said. “I actually think there is a lot of similarities.”

That would make since considering Hill played for McBride at Utah in 1998 and 1999 before taking a graduate assistant job the last two years of McBride’s tenure in Salt Lake City. Hill stayed on at his alma mater, coaching special teams and a variety of positions for Urban Meyer and Kyle Whittingham before taking the WSU job following Jody Sears’ firing leading into the 2014 season.

Montana running back Marcus Knight (21) in 2019/by Brooks Nuanez

Hauck’s Griz are 8-2 entering Saturday’s showdown between No. 5 Montana and the No. 3 visitors. WSU earned the No. 2 seed last season following their second straight Big Sky title and have won six straight Big Sky games so far this season. Weber is 8-0 against FCS opponents and have decisive wins over No. 4 Northern Iowa (29-17), at No. 22 UC Davis (36-20), at No. 6 Sacramento State (36-17) and last week against No. 22 North Dakota (30-27).

“I think they are a complete football team,” Hauck said. “They are good on offense, they are good on defense, they are good on the special teams area. A lot of that comes from the fact that they are a veteran team who has an experienced and veteran coaching staff.”

“I think they are physically mature. They look big and strong on film. I think we have our hands full with a real veteran outfit.”

QUICK HITS

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 $101.6 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 averaged 8,799 fans per their six home games last season. This season, WSU has drawn an average of 8,445 in its three home games.

THE TEAM (6-0 IN BIG SKY PLAY, 8-2 OVERALL)

The Coach: Jay Hill, sixth season at Weber State. As has been well chronicled, since Hill turn over at Weber, the Wildcats have incrementally better each season. If Weber State takes the next step this season, it will mean a Final Four berth in the FCS Playoffs.

Hill played 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. 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.

“You see a lot of carryover from Coach Hill’s days at Utah so the scheme is good, very solid, very sound in everything they do,” Hauck said. “They play hard, they tackle well. That usually lends itself to good defense.”

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, posting their first win at Washington-Grizzly Stadium 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.

In 2018, Weber shared the league title with Eastern Washington and UC Davis, marking the second time in WSU history that the school has won consecutive Big Sky titles. As the No. 2 seed in the playoffs, Weber State beat Southeast Missouri State in the Round of 16 but lost 23-18 to No. 7 Maine in the quarterfinals.

With six Big Sky victories to begin this season, Weber State has won 13 straight conference contests and 28 of its last 32 league games overall.

Hill is 42-28 at WSU, including 31-13 in Big Sky Conference play.

“We know a lot of guys on their coaching staff,” Hauck said. “They have a lot of talent on that staff as well as the guys wearing the helmets. They are a good outfit.”

THE OFFENSE – Players to Watch

Josh Davis, running back, 5-9, 195, sophomore — The 2016 Utah Gatorade Player of the Year was one of the top recruits in the Jay Hill era. He would’ve debuted for the Wildcats in 2017 but he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Weber State’s first game against Montana Western.

No matter. Davis still ripped apart the Big Sky in his first year as the go-to ball carrier in Weber’s backfield last season. The explosive, tough and durable runner became the first Wildcat ever to receive national freshmen honors. He was the Big Sky Freshman of the Year, a first-team All-Big Sky and All-American selection and the Jerry Rice Award winner as the FCS National Freshman of the Year last season.

He did it by rushing for 1,362 yards and nine touchdowns on 250 carries. He had seven games of over 100 yards and two more of over 200, including a season-high 225 yards against Southern Utah. He averaged 113.5 rushing yards per game, the 12th-most in the country and the third-most in the league. He also had 13 catches for 193 yards and 14 punt returns for 224 yards and a touchdown. His 1,779 yards were the most ever by a Wildcat freshman.

This season, Davis had 134 carries for 901 yards (6.7 yards per carry) and nine touchdowns.

“They know how to run the ball,” Hauck said. “There is no doubt that (offensive line/associate head coach) Brent Myers and (offensive coordinator) Dave Schramm know how to dial up the run game. How to stop them? A lot of that starts in the weight room in the winter time and a lot of that is going on as we are game planning them.”

But Davis’ durability may be in question Saturday against the Griz. In Weber’s 30-27 win over North Dakota, Davis ripped off a 26-yard run that resulted in him leaving the field in a daze. He did not return.

Earlier this season, Davis rushed for 328 yards and four touchdowns in a 51-28 win over Northern Arizona. The total served as the fifth-best in Big Sky history, a Weber State school record and the most in the league since 2011 when C.J. Tuckett rushed for 211 yards. In that same game, Kris Jackson rushed for 111 yards and three touchdowns, a perfect example of how Weber’s rushing attack is not a one-trick pony.

Jackson, a 5-foot-10, 235-pound redshirt freshman, leads Weber State with 10 rushing touchdowns this season. Kevin Smith, who rushed for 562 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore, has bounced back from an injury that cost him all of last season. This season, he has surpassed 100 yards three times, including a 104-yard effort last week against North Dakota. He has 508 yards and two touchdowns this season.

“They are all a little bit different but they have their starter (Davis) and he’s the best one,” Hauck said. “He’s a great player.”

Jake Constantine, quarterback, 6-2, 200, junior — The former Boise State and Ventura junior college transfer went back and forth with Kaden Jenks for reps at quarterback last season until Weber State took on Montana State. In that game, Constantine entered to lead the Wildcats to a come-from-behind 34-24 victory.

Constantine led Weber to five straight wins after that comeback, helping WSU earn the No. 2 seed and home field advantage for two playoff games. But he also threw four interceptions in a 23-18 loss to Maine in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs. Constantine finished the season with 2,205 yards and 18 touchdowns.

This season, Constantine went down with an injury late in WSU’s 41-24 win over Cal Poly in a non-conference contest. Jenks threw for 219 yards and two touchdowns in a 29-17 win over now-No. 4 Northern Iowa in September.

Constantine has been Weber’s starter for all of conference play. He has completed 64.5 percent of his passes for 1,274 yards, seven touchdowns and six interceptions this season.

Rashid Shaheed, wide receiver/returner, 6-0, 180, junior — Shaheed has been unquestionably the best kick returner in the Big Sky Conference and one of the best in the country during his time with the Wildcats. He has been the Big Sky’s first-team All-Big Sky kick returner and a first-team All-American each of the last two years.

As a true freshman, he amassed 743 kick return yards and scored two touchdowns, averaging 29.7 yards per chance, fourth in the nation. Last season, he returned a kick 100 yards against Northern Colorado and another kick 79 yards for a touchdown against Idaho State. He finished second in the country averaging 34.3 yards per kick return.

This season, Shaheed missed three games leading up to returning last week. He has only returned seven kicks and is averaging 20.3 yards per return. He has assumed punt return duties for the second year in a row (he averaged 10.1 yards on 21 punt returns last season) and is averaging 16.8 yards on nine returned punts.

I think Rashid Shaheed may be the most explosive player in FCS football,” Hauck said. “We have our hands full with him.”

Shaheed also led the Wildcats in receiving yards with 442 on 41 catches, including five touchdowns last season. As a freshman, he 25 catches for 545 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman. This year, the San Diego native has caught 19 passes for 233 yards and three touchdowns.

“You have to tackle him,” Hauck said. “I watch games on TV and hear people say, ‘I can’t believe they are kicking it him.’ How do you not kick it to him? Punters are trained to not kick it out of bounds. And kickoff guys, I know you can nudge on side it but they get the ball at the 40 every time. You have to tackle them.”

THE DEFENSE — Players to watch

Jonah Williams, defensive end, 6-5, 285, senior — The 2016 Hero Sports Freshman All-American has continued fulfilling his potential, earning second-team All-Big Sky honors as a sophomore in 2017 and first-team honors last season.

The preseason All-Big Sky pick entering his final year has again fulfilled that prediction. Earlier this week, he moved onto the Buck Buchanan Award watch list.

Williams has been solid in his assignments and role on a defense with a reputation as the Big Sky’s best and one of the top units in the FCS even if his stats have not been gaudy. He had 53 tackles, four tackles for loss, and two sacks. As a sophomore, he had six tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks among his 37 tackles. Last season, he had seven tackles for loss but no sacks.

He has almost doubled his career sack total during his senior year. He has 43 tackles, 6.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. He also has a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries, giving him three each in his career. He had three sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss in WSU’s 19-13 loss at Nevada. He also had two sacks in a 29-14 win over Southern Utah and a sack last week against North Dakota.

Adam Rodriguez, defensive end, 6-2, 245, senior — Rodriguez did not play as early as Williams consistently but has had a more sharp upward trajectory since breaking into the lineup.

As a sophomore, Rodriguez notched 58 tackles, second on the Wildcats, including eight tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. Last year, those totals spiked to 61 total tackles, 15 tackles for loss and seven sacks.

Rodriguez missed the game against Idaho this season and has played in a pretty consistent rotation with sophomore George Tarlas this season. But Rodriguez still has 34 tackles, 4.5 sacks and six tackles for loss in 2019.

When Rodriguez was not available, Tarlas stepped in and had two sack-strip-fumbles to earn Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week honors against Idaho. Tarlas has six sacks this season.

“Their defensive line is good, they are physical and well-coached,” Hauck said. “They do a nice job of not getting knocked off the ball, they are good with their hands. They do what good defensive linemen do.”

Noah Vaea, linebacker, 5-11, 220, sophomore — Last season as a freshman, Vaea had 21 tackles and two sacks backing up one of the best linebacker duos in the country: seniors Landon Stice and LeGrand Toia.

Now it’s the Herriman, Utah native’s show and he is thriving. He leads the Wildcats with 59 tackles, including five tackles for loss. He has notched double-digit tackles against Nevada, Idaho and Sacramento State.

Preston Smith, safety, 5-11, 185, junior — Smith spent his sophomore year in a similar position as Vaea: a backup to first-team All-Big Sky seniors. Jordan Preator and Jawian Harrison earned such distinction for the Wildcats last season on a unit that landed Williams, Rodriguez, Toia, Stice, the aforementioned safety pair, cornerback Keilan Benjamin and special teamer Brady May on the first-team all-league defensive unit.

Even with the logjam in front of him, Smith notched 28 tackles in each of his first two seasons. This season, he has already surpassed his career total, piling up 58 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss so far as a junior.

Photo attribution noted. All Rights Reserved.

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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