Weber State football aims for consistency to send Southern Utah out of Big Sky
OGDEN — Weber State football hasn’t been in this position for six years.
A somewhat stunning home loss to Portland State last week spelled the end of WSU’s postseason hopes with two games left to play.
“It was a pretty down group on Monday, which you would expect,” head coach Jay Hill said. “I think the reality of all the success we’ve had and then having let a couple games slip away this year, and the likelihood of going to the playoffs slim to none, it was a dejected group. But the reality is, you’ve got to bounce back.”
For the second time in seven months, Weber State travels to Cedar City to face rival Southern Utah.
“We’ve got a really good opponent. Southern Utah might be the best 1-9 team I’ve ever seen, so we better be ready to go this week because they’ll be ready for us, I promise,” Hill said.
When Big Sky schedule-makers moved the Weber-SUU game to the end of the season – originally the 2020 schedule, pushed to fall 2021 — there was no way they could know it would be the Thunderbirds’ final game in the conference.
Southern Utah (1-9, 0-7 Big Sky) is leaving for the Western Athletic Conference come July 1, 2022, and Saturday’s matchup is the final game on SUU’s football schedule.
Though it seems likely the two programs will keep playing in some fashion as nonconference opponents, Weber State is playing to hand the Thunderbirds their fifth straight loss in the series and send them out of the Big Sky with a 4-26 record over the last four conference schedules.
Southern Utah’s 2021 campaign has been filled with mostly blowouts, though two of them against FBS teams are certainly not a strike against the T-Birds. SUU most notably won a future conference matchup at Tarleton State, 40-35, played Portland State to a 20-13 loss and was a doinked field goal away from possibly beating Montana in Missoula, losing 20-19.
But, SUU was not terribly competitive against even unranked league opponents like Idaho or Northern Arizona.
Still, they’re playing to send their seniors out right and to try and end the season on a win.
Justin Miller is still at quarterback in Cedar City. He threw 24 of 43 for only 181 yards against WSU in the spring, a game Weber State won 19-16, something Hill said would be key again.
“Anybody who beats them has to do a good job of stopping the quarterback and giving him multiple looks, both in the front and in the coverages,” Hill said. “We’ve got to do a good job stopping the run and make them one-dimensional. Defensively, that’s going to be key.”
SUU averages only 20 points per game in conference play. Its best output was in a 59-35 loss at NAU, its worst a 17-9 loss at home to Northern Colorado.
“Their offense can be explosive if you give them a chance to be explosive. So we’ve got to get off the field as a defense and get the ball back to the offense,” junior safety Desmond Williams said.
The T-Birds are still a pass-first, pass-often offense. Miller throws for 236 yards per game, totaling nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions this season on a completion rate of 62%. His top targets are Brandon Schenks (39 catches, 516 yards, six touchdowns) and Ethan Bolingbroke (53 catches, 515 yards, two touchdowns).
Defensively, the man to know is still La’akea Kaho’ohanohano-Davis at middle linebacker. The exceptional athlete leads SUU with 67 tackles and three sacks, adding an interception this season. In the spring game against WSU, he blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown.
Weber State’s (4-5, 3-3) offense has slogged through a bunch of games since that spring matchup in Cedar City but doesn’t look much improved. The Wildcats have struggled to combine sound blocking, vision to connect on big pass plays, and have not run the football well in the last two weeks.
“What’s kind of evaded us is consistency on making plays. We had Rashid Shaheed four or five times behind Portland State’s secondary and just didn’t hit him,” Hill said. “Those are the things that are costing us. We need to do a better job of hitting what’s there … We need to be really prepared going in, having watched film, and need to make sure the game plans are such that we’re not outsmarting ourselves and the players, and just go put them in a position where they can make plays this week.”
WSU had only eight handoffs to running backs out of 58 offensive plays last week. Hill said some of that was trying to take advantage of shots available over the top, which ended up not working because quarterback Bronson Barron did not identify open receivers, or because the combination of the timing, the throw and the route didn’t connect.
But what saved a near-loss at SUU in the spring was Dontae McMillan, who ran for 138 yards despite getting his first carry with 1 minute left in the third quarter.
“The coaches need to do a better job of designing plays that have the proper block angles and getting a hat on a hat, all the things you need to do there,” Hill said. “We’ve got to get the tailbacks more involved … the backs stepped up at the Eastern Washington game and we need them to do it again.”
While losing to Portland State, a 5-4 team who is now 4-3 in the Big Sky, was a separator between being in the playoff hunt or just moderately OK, WSU’s track record this year against teams with records like Southern Utah has been better. Weber State has wins over Cal Poly, Dixie State and Idaho State, who are a combined 2-25 this season, by an average score of 40-11.
ODDS & PREDICTIONS
Jeff Sagarin, longtime college football computer ratings guru, ranks all of FBS and FCS together. His system ranks Weber State 130th nationally and Southern Utah 208th.
Using his prediction formula and accounting for home-field advantage, Weber State is favored by 17 points.
The forecast calls for a beautiful day in Cedar City, with sunny skies and a temperature of 64 degrees when the game kicks off at 2 p.m.
As the sun will go down as the game ends, temperatures will drop into the mid-to-high 50s.
TV & RADIO
As with all Big Sky Conference games, the contest will stream on the ESPN+ subscription service, available on the ESPN streaming/mobile app or online at espn.com/watch. SUU’s call will have Chris Holmes on play-by-play and Spencer McLaughlin on color. Weber State’s radio call with Steve Klauke and Jerry Graybeal will be carried over the air in northern Utah at 103.1 FM and online at 1031thewave.com.