FCS Playoffs

Wildcats cross up Sneed and Griz, Weber advance to Final Four


Adam Rodriguez and the Weber State Wildcats fully embraced the opportunity for revenge.

And as the old saying goes, revenge is a dish best served cold. Or in the case of Friday night at Stewart Stadium, revenge was served wet, chilly and a sloppy mess.

On November 16, WSU came to Washington-Grizzly Stadium with a No. 3 national ranking and an 8-0 record against FCS opponents. The Wildcats left with a snapped 13-game Big Sky Conference winning streak, injuries to standout starters quarterback Jake Constantine, running back Josh Davis, wide receiver Devon Cooley and tight end Justin Malone and a shocking 35-16 loss to No. 5 Montana.

That win vaulted the Griz into the inside track for the program’s first official Big Sky Conference since 2009 and put the rest of the state, Big Sky and FCS on notice that Montana’s “return to dominance” might be ahead of schedule. 

Weber State sixth-year head coach Jay Hill talked after the game about hoping for a rematch against Montana in Missoula. Instead, Montana State physically overwhelmed Montana in a 48-14 beat down that gave the Bobcats the No. 5 seed and the Griz the No. 6 seed in the FCS playoffs.

Montana bounced back last week with a 73-28 win over Southeastern Louisiana to set up a rematch with the Wildcats. But this time, the game was in Ogden and the Wildcats had the stark motivation of overcoming an injury-riddled, mistake-heavy first try with a berth in the semifinals of the FCS playoffs on the line.

A revamped Weber State defense put Rodriguez in one-on-one situations off the edge, allowing the senior defensive end to wreak havoc for the duration of a game that started with snow before shifting to rain. Rodriguez set the tone with two first-quarter sacks and the Wildcat defense smothered the Griz for the duration of the game.

The pressure combined with a creative coverage scheme that often dropped defensive end George Tarlas into coverage kept Montana senior quarterback Dalton Sneed confused from start to finish. Sneed threw five interceptions, Rodriguez rolled up four of WSU’s six sacks, the hosts blocked a punt that led to the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter and Weber State emerged with a 17-10 win in front of 6,422 Friday night.

“Big win, against a very good opponent,” Hill said in an interview provided by Weber State athletics. ”They are very well coached, they have a lot of seniors on that team that have played a lot football.

“Big win for our program. Our defense played fantastic. To combine five interceptions with six sacks is huge. “

Montana quarterback Dalton Sneed (11) vs Weber State in the 2019 FCS Playoffs/by Robert Casey

The win moves the third-seeded Wildcats into the semifinals of the FCS playoffs for the first time in program history. Before Hill arrived in Ogden, WSU had two playoff appearances in school history. In the fourth straight playoff appearance under Hill, Weber State is a step away from the national championship game.

“We are resilient, they don’t flinch,” Hill said. “That college football, when you get to this stage everyone is going to be good. Sometimes you’re going to be up and you got to keep playing, sometimes you will be down and you’ve got to keep playing.

Weber State will play at No. 2 James Madison next weekend. JMU defeated Weber State 31-28 in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs in 2017.

“Very proud of the seniors,” Hill said. “They continue to add to their total of being the winningest class in school history. I can’ say enough about their preparation and leadership.”

Less than a month after destroying the Wildcats, the Griz hit I-15 north licking wounds of their own. Montana won seven of eight games down the stretch despite losing Sneed for a time in a 49-22 loss at Sac State. But the Griz enter the off-season with two devastating losses in its last three games.

“Just not our night,” Montana second-year head coach Bobby Hauck said. “The conditions were rough on us. On a night like tonight, we needed to run it better than we did. Stats are for losers. I’m sitting here looking at the state sheet and it makes me sick.

“I just told my seniors how proud I was of them putting Grizzly football back on the map and right where we should be. The future is bright and we are just disappointed we couldn’t stay together for another week.

The first quarter, a frame dominated by heavy snowfall, stout defenses and sloppy offensive execution ended in a 0-0 tie. Each team started the game with four punts and the Big Sky rivals gained 36 yards total in the first 15 minutes.

A 40-yard bomb from Sneed to junior Samori Toure helped set up the first score of the game with 7:13 left in the first half, a one-yard touchdown toss from Sneed to senior tight end Colin Bingham.

Sneed threw a pick into triple coverage that Eddie Hackard snared with six minutes left in the first half. That set up Trey Tuttle’s 41-yard field goal three plays later to get Weber on the board and help the Wildcats enter the break down 7-3.

A week after throwing for 459 yards and five touchdowns, Montana’s senior captain quarterback threw another pick into a swarm of multiple defenders for his second interception of the first half, this one by Max Anderson. Weber didn’t get points but ran out the first half clock.

In the second half, a Weber State offense that finished with just 113 yards of total offense and eight first downs forged its only substantial drive of the game after UM opened the third with a 3-and-out.

The Griz smacked Davis hard enough to knock him out of the game in the first half. But the first-team All-Big Sky tailback returned to action in the second half and scored an 11-yard go-ahead touchdown to cap a 72-yard drive about five minutes into the third quarter. Weber would not trail again.

“We had a lack of offensive efficiency and that was frustrating, but I will say I thought the offense did a phenomenal job in those conditions of not turning the ball over,” Hill said. “To go plus five, you usually win by a little more than we did.”

Two plays after that Davis touchdown, Sneed threw an interception to Tarlas, Weber State’s third defensive end and a third-team All-Big Sky selection. Montana forced a turnover on downs only to see its next drive end five plays later when WSU inside linebacker Noah Vaea picked Sneed off for the fourth time.

Trailing 10-7 early in the fourth quarter, the Griz remained in the game because of a salty defense led by All-American linebacker Dante Olson (14 tackles), junior All-Big Sky inside linebacker Jace Lewis (12 tackles, two tackles for loss) and senior safety Josh Sandry (two tackles for loss).

Montana answered Sneed’s fourth pick by blocking Tuttle’s 25-yard field goal attempt to help the third quarter end with a 10-7 score. But the fourth quarter started with Rodriguez’s third sack, which led to another punt.

The Griz defense held once again on a night where WSU converted just 3-of-16 third downs and averaged just 1.9 yards per play. But Ja’Kobe Harris answered Griz defensive lineman Alex Gubner’s block with one of his own, stuffing Montana punter Adam Wilson and falling on the ball in the end-zone. Weber led 17-7 with 9:41 to play.

“The blocked punt is a bad call by me,” Hauck said. “It’s on me. I could’ve had us in a better protection there, frankly.”

A 19-yard catch by Toure moved the Griz inside the 10-yard line but Sneed took two sacks, including the fourth by Rodriguez, that forced the visitors to settle for a 27-yard Brandon Purdy field goal for UM’s last score of the 2019 season.

The Griz defense forced a three-and-out but Tarlas’ second interception while playing zone coverage sealed Weber’s seventh FCS playoff game in school history.

“We put a lot on him tonight and it was a tough night to throw it,” Hauck said about Sneed. “They changed up some coverages and gave him a couple different looks so credit goes to Weber on that one.

“Dalton didn’t play his best game tonight. He is pretty down about it but I love him. He’s a fierce competitor, a great leader and certainly we will let this one go in the next few days and reflect on the job that dude did for this program the last two years.”

The loss ends Montana’s largely successful season. The Griz snapped a three-year streak of missing the playoffs. UM earned its first seed in the FCS playoffs since 2013 and its first bid in the quarterfinals since 2011.

Montana will have to figure out how to replace Sneed, Bingham, Wilson, Olson, Sandry, captain defensive tackle Jesse Sims, school reception record-holder and All-American punt returner Jerry Louie-McGee, all-conference offensive linemen Cy Sirmon and Angel Villanueva and competitive cornerback Justin Calhoun among their 16 seniors.

But the 10 wins mark a season-high since the 2013 season. Hauck likes the trajectory for the Griz entering the 2020s.

“I love these guys,” Hauck said. “The work they did and all the things they overcame to decide to put us back where we were tonight, which is national TV (ESPN2), the FCS quarterfinals with a 10-win season, they had to sacrifice. They had to change their way of doing things. I’m just grateful to them.

“The Griz are back. We are fired up to be here and we are going to be fired up to be doing this again next year.”

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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