CEDAR CITY -- The Wildcats are winless no more.
Weber State finally played a full four quarters -- right down to the final minute -- to defeat in-state rival Southern Utah 24-22 Saturday at Eccles Coliseum to snap a season-long drought.
Weber State defensive lineman Trevor Pletcher knocked down Southern Utah quarterback Brad Sorensen on a two-point conversion attempt to prevent the Thunderbirds from tying the game with 54 seconds remaining.
After a pair of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties against the Wildcats gave the Thunderbirds a chance to try an onside kick from the 'Cats 35-yard line. Kela Marciel cleanly fielded the ball to seal the victory as Weber State (1-7, 1-4 Big Sky) surprised favored Southern Utah (3-5, 2-3) in a Beehive battle marking their first contest as Big Sky Conference foes.
Weber State interim coach Jody Sears was happy to get an early gift for his 45th birthday today -- a W.
"It's been a long season only in perspective of the win-loss (column)," Sears said. "But I love every day going to work with these kids because they've shown up, they've done everything that we've asked them to, they practice their tails off."
With incoming Weber State University President Charles Wight in attendance, the Wildcats avoided matching their 0-8 start in 2004, the worst in school history.
"I'm really proud of them," said Sears. "I can't wait to get to work again. To be honest, every time we go to practice on Monday, win or a previous loss, I look forward to it. These kids come with their hard hats every day and for that I am so appreciative of this program. They've gotten better each week and it showed up."
Senior quarterback Mike Hoke threw for 206 yards and one touchdown without an interception and rushed for another score for Weber State.
Xavian Johnson caught six passes for 123 yards, including a 76-yard turn-and-burn race down the sideline for a score, the Wildcats' longest play of the year, for a 21-6 advantage in the third quarter.
SUU wouldn't let the 'Cats coast through the fourth quarter but WSU held on to taste victory at last during a season of struggle.
"It feels like a lot of weight off our shoulders," Johnson said. "First win; we've still got to move forward but it's actually a relief to get our first win for coach Sears and our coaches that played here (offensive coordinator Matt Hammer). It's a real big win."
Weber State finally got to celebrate in the locker room after a game.
"It was just unreal. I forgot how that feeling feels since it's been so long since Portland," Hoke said, referring to Weber State's victory in the last game of the 2011 season. "This team worked so hard for it, and coach Sears and all the coaches put in so much time. It was good to finally see all that summer training, all that camp, just paying off."
Weber State's defense limited Southern Utah to three Colton Cook field goals until the fourth quarter before Sorensen, the Big Sky preseason offensive player of the year, rallied the T-Birds for two TDs in the final stanza to make it a barnburner.
Weber State held Sorensen to just 165 yards passing with no touchdowns through the first three quarters, but he finished by completing 33 of 47 passes for 320 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
WSU's defense, led by Adam Padilla with eight tackles and Marciel and Anthony Morales with seven each, held Southern Utah to just 43 yards rushing.
C.J. Tuckett, who rushed for 90 yards and a touchdown, scored on a 3-yard dive early in the second quarter as Weber State took a 7-3 lead. Hoke added to it just before the half, turning the corner on third-and-short for a 22-yard gain down to the SUU 3, then going the rest of the way on the next play to extend Weber State's advantage to 14-3, its first halftime lead this season.
WSU had a chance to take control marching into Southern Utah territory with a 21-9 in the fourth quarter, but on third and 11, as Hoke tried to hurdle a tackler, Mike Needham forced him to cough up the ball and LeShaun Sims recovered to keep the T-Birds alive.
Sorensen immediately went into attack mode, completing five straight passes, including a 34-yard touchdown to Fatu Moala for SUU's first TD of the game with 8:11 remaining.
Weber State answered with what turned out to be the game-winning score. With the wind at his back, Shaun McClain tied his career long with a 46-yard field goal to make it an eight-point lead.
The 'Cats forced SUU to go for it on fourth down twice on its final drive, but Sorensen found Moala for first downs both times. He finished the drive with a 7-yard toss to Griff McNabb, but as he rolled out to the right on the two-point conversion try, Pletcher buried him behind the line of scrimmage.
After the penalties and a strange delay when Cook couldn't keep the ball from being blown off the kicking tee, Marciel fell on the onside kick and WSU ran out the clock.
Weber State has a bye week next Saturday before returning home to Stewart Stadium to face Montana on Nov. 3.
Weber State 24,
Southern Utah 22
At SUU Coliseum, Cedar City
Weber State 0 14 7 3 -- 24
Southern Utah 3 0 6 13 -- 22
Southern Utah--Cook 46 field goal, 3:30.
Weber State--Tuckett 3 run (McClain kick), 12:35.
Weber State--Hoke 3 run (McClain kick), 1:19.
Southern Utah--Cook 33 field goal, 11:20.
Weber State--X.Johnson 75 pass from Hoke (McClain kick), 11:05.
Southern Utah--Cook 31 field goal, 6:49.
Southern Utah--Moala 34 pass from Sorensen (Cook kick), 8:11.
Weber State--McClain 46 field goal, 3:43.
Southern Utah--McNabb 7 pass from Sorensen (pass failed), :54.
Weber St. So. Utah
First downs 19 19
Rushes-yards 41-140 16-43
Passing 206 320
Comp-Att-Int 16-28-0 33-47-0
Return Yards 0 (-7)
Punts-Avg. 5-51.6 5-51.6
Fumbles-Lost 1-1 1-0
Penalties-Yards 11-103 5-55
Time of Possession 31:28 28:32
Rushing--Weber St., Tuckett 17-90, Hoke 16-56, Parham 5-21, Team 3-(minus 27). S. Utah, Crawford-Harris 8-26, Sorensen 7-13, C..Morgan 1-4.
Passing--Weber St., Hoke 16-28-0-206. S. Utah, Sorensen 33-47-0-320.
Receiving--Weber St., X.Johnson 6-123, Walker 4-54, Fowler 2-17, Tuckett 2-8, Clemente 1-2, Jankowski 1-2. S. Utah, Crawford-Harris 9-65, Moala 7-95, Jessop 4-49, Pedersen 4-41, H.Brown 4-33, C..Morgan 2-20, McNabb 2-10, J.Smith 1-7.