Weber State seeks revenge while Southern Utah seeks affirmation in the second round of the FCS playoffs today.
The Utah in-state rivals shared the Big Sky Conference championship in 2017. The Thunderbirds lost their league opener to Sacramento State, 54-27 before ripping off seven straight league victories to earn their second conference crown in three seasons. Weber State’s lone loss came to Southern Utah, 32-16, in Ogden. WSU has won six straight since, including a 21-19 victory over Western Illinois in the first home playoff game in school history.
“It was great to get a win for Weber State and the city of Ogden in our first home playoff game,” Weber State All-American senior tight end Andrew Vollert said. “I thought the crowd showed out. They supported our Weber State football team and I thought it was awesome.”
Weber State’s historic victory last weekend sets up a rematch in the second round of the FCS playoffs in Cedar City on Saturday night. The T-Birds earned the No. 8 seed and the accompanying first-round bye. This marks SUU’s third playoff appearance since 2013 but Southern Utah is still searching for its first playoff win since moving to Division I in 1993.
“We wanted to get a bye and we thought we deserved one,” SUU second-year head coach Demario Warren, the co-Coach of the Year in the Big Sky this season, said last week. “It shouldn’t have been as stressful as it was but it was awesome we were in there. It is just frustrating nationally when all of a sudden the Big Sky is down when SUU is at the top of it.”
Southern Utah has continued to play tough, physical defense combined with a suddenly explosive offense that has been on full display this month. After pulling away from Weber, SUU scored 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to down Eastern Washington, 46-28. SUU scored 47 points two weeks in a row with wins over North Dakota and UC Davis. The Thunderbirds clinched the Big Sky crown with a 48-20 win over Northern Arizona.
“It’s awesome to win the Big Sky two out of three years,” SUU senior linebacker Mike Needham, a three-time first-team All-Big Sky pick, said. “I think we are finally proving ourselves. With this being the best year SUU has ever had, I think we have earned the respect that we wanted. We haven’t begged for it. We have just shown people this is who we are: a great contender in the Big Sky and the FCS.”
A year after Eastern Washington advanced to the final four — the only league team league team to win any playoff games out of the BSC’s four playoff qualifiers last season — the Big Sky is guaranteed a team in the final eight. But only one Big Sky team will remain alive in the national title hunt.
Weber State, SUU and Northern Arizona were the three Big Sky teams to receive playoff bids, marking the first time since 1991 that either Montana, Montana State or Eastern Washington did not play in the postseason. EWU, Montana and Sacramento State all finished with 7-4 records, in the past a good enough mark to get into the 24-team field.
“You see teams like Eastern Washington get left out, Sacramento State, Montana. It’s because the Big Sky has the eighth-best team in the country as a champion and not No. 2,” Warren lamented. “It was awesome we get a bye, a week off but it kind of sucks because we know how hard these other teams work, how good they are and they deserve a shot to be in the playoffs as well.”
Weber State fourth-year head coach Jay Hill has steadily built WSU from a two-win team his first season to a winner in his second to a playoff team a year ago to a Big Sky champion this season. But the Wildcats did not get a seed despite its 9-2 regular-season mark. If not for the loss to their in-state rivals, Saturday night’s game would be at Stewart Stadium in Ogden instead of Eccles Coliseum in Cedar City.
“This is what we wanted,” Hill said. “If I could’ve drawn it up any way I wanted, I would’ve given us a tough opponent in the first round and Southern Utah in the second. I couldn’t have asked for something better. That Southern Utah week, we were coming off a bye and we didn’t handle the bye very good.
“We are hot right now. I didn’t want to stop playing. If I could’ve drawn it up any way for the teams that didn’t’ get seeds, I would’ve wanted Western Illinois here, Southern Utah in the second round. This is perfect for us.”
In Southern Utah’s first two playoff games in 2013 and 2015, respectively, the Thunderbirds had to go on the road to play one of this decade’s most dominant FCS teams, Sam Houston State. The Bearkats blasted SUU 51-20 in 2013 and eked out a 42-39 win over the Big Sky champs in 2015. Now SUU will get its first-ever home playoff game. Southern Utah is 14-1 at home over the last three seasons.
“I’m excited. I think the rivalry has grown, especially this year,” Needham said. “They are a great team. We are excited to get back on the field and play against then, give them all we have because we know they are going to give us all they have. It should be a crazy game just the whole state being there supporting both teams.”
Last week’s win moves Weber to 10-2 this season, the losses coming to the Wildcats’ in-state rival and in Week 2 to Cal. WSU won a share of its first Big Sky title in Hill’s fourth season thanks to a dominant defense that led the league in scoring defense (16.8 points per game), total defense (336.5 yards per game), rushing defense (117.2 yards per game), defensive pass efficiency (108.1) and interceptions (17).
Both Weber’s losses come with regrettable downfalls. WSU blew a 20-17 lead fourth quarter lead in Berkeley in the 33-20 loss to Cal. With the game tied at 13 six minutes into the second quarter against SUU, senior quarterback Stefan Cantwell was knocked out of the action with a head injury that cost him the rest of the contest. SUU ended the game on a 19-3 run. Cantwell returned the following week. Weber State had not lost since.
“The Southern Utah game was a wake up call for us,” Vollert said. “Since that game, we are focusing on the details and the little things a little more, the fundamentals of football. We have done a really good job of fine-tuning our skills throughout the season and paying attention to the little things. It’s really shown up on Saturdays.”
Hill references the in-state loss as the turning point in Weber State’s season. The Wildcats beat Cal Poly, Montana and Eastern Washington in successive weeks. WSU finished the regular season by blasting Portland State 63-17 and dismantling rival Idaho State 35-7.
“I thought in a way, the Southern Utah loss was a good thing for us because I think we were starting to get a little complacent and quite frankly, we didn’t play good in that game,” Hill said. “We got our butts handed to us because we didn’t show up that day. I think they thought Southern Utah was going to roll over because we played well the prior couple of weeks. Bottom line, we laid an egg in that game but it woke us up and it gave me an opportunity to jump them a little bit. It proved a point that no matter who you are playing, if you don’t get ready to play, they will kick your butt in this league.
“It better be,” Hill said. “If I have to motivate them for this one after what happened in the first one, I’ll kick ‘em right in the shorts because that should not be the case. These guys should be geeked out of their minds ready to go.”
Kickoff from Eccles Coliseum is at 6 p.m. Saturday night.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.