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History against James Madison is short, recent, painful for Weber State football

By Brett Hein - | Sep 14, 2021

MATT HERP, Standard-Examiner file photo

In this Dec. 8, 2017, photo, Will Baxter, 14, far right, and brother Max Baxter, to his left, alongside family and fans, react after a play while watching Weber State battle James Madison in the FCS quarterfinals at a watch party at the Megaplex Theatres in Ogden.

As No. 9 Weber State football prepares to host No. 3 James Madison this weekend in Ogden, the history between the schools can be summed up pretty quickly.

Perhaps even in one tweet.

On Monday morning, JMU Sports News — a fan-run news and podcast site for James Madison sports — tweeted “Welcome back, Weber State week.”

Attached was the 2017 video of kicker Ethan Ratke sending through a 46-yard field goal as time expired to help No. 1 James Madison stave off unseeded Weber State 31-28 in the playoff quarterfinals.

Though that heartbreak from what was, at the time, the best team in WSU football history, was easily summed up by that short clip, there was so much more.

“I shouldn’t have to say anything to get these guys excited about playing James Madison, just knowing how the first two games went against them,” Weber State head coach Jay Hill said Tuesday. “This is something our guys will take a lot of pride in and hopefully they’ll relish the opportunity and the matchup because we have tons of respect for this team.”

That cold, Friday night from four years ago saw a team that barely registered on the national radar become a major blip. Having nearly defeated Cal early in the season and going 7-1 in the Big Sky only after losing quarterback Stefan Cantwell to concussion protocol during a loss to Southern Utah, the Wildcats won a hard-fought victory over Western Illinois in the first round and advanced to romp over Southern Utah in the second round.

In the quarterfinals, WSU took an early 7-0 lead after Xequille Harry picked off a pass at the JMU 44 and returned it to the 4, resulting in a score two plays later. And just before halftime in Harrisonburg, Virginia, Harry again had a big play. Jonah Williams blocked a Ratke field-goal attempt and Harry scooped it for a touchdown return.

It looked like WSU had a 14-10 lead at halftime, but Williams was called for a rather dubious holding call after he knocked down the JMU holder during the scramble for the blocked football.

Even then, Weber State scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, and a 10-play, 82-yard drive finished with a Stefan Cantwell-to-Drew Batchelor touchdown pass of 36 yards, and WSU led 28-20 with 3:14 left. No. 1 was on the ropes.

Somehow, it was too much time. The Dukes scored in 52 seconds on a 40-yard touchdown pass to Riley Stapleton. With 2:08 left, WSU could manage only 1 yard, threw two incomplete passes, and punted the ball back to JMU with 1:06 left.

It was enough for the Dukes to get Ratke into position for the winner as time expired.

Daniel Lin, Daily News-Record In this Dec. 8, 2017, photo, James Madison wide receiver Riley Stapleton (10) makes a leaping catch against Weber State defensive back Jeremy Maxwell (23) during an FCS quarterfinals game in Harrisonburg, Va.

Ratke is one of a handful of players from 2017 who will be there for Saturday’s game. He’s since gone on to become the best kicker in FCS history, statistically speaking. Last week in a blowout win over Maine, Ratke set a new FCS record for points by a kicker (417) and tied the FCS record for career field goals (75).

At Weber State, Rashid Shaheed, Ben Bos, Ty Whitworth and Preston Smith are among those still playing, along with the injured Kevin Smith Jr.

The 2019 matchup looked a lot different, both in the leadup and in the result.

Weber State was no longer an upstart, upset-minded program. The Wildcats were ranked No. 3 entering the playoffs and had defeated Kennesaw State and No. 6 Montana to reach the FCS semifinals for the first time in program history.

No. 2 James Madison was keeping on what has become its usual, and WSU’s hopes and dreams of being one game away from playing for the title died with an offense not able to meet the challenge of the night.

Up 24-7 at halftime, Ratke booted a pair of second-half field goals to make it 30-7 before Weber State punched in a touchdown with 2:54 left — another painful way to end what had become the new best-ever season for Weber State.

Will Saturday look any different in Ogden? The leadup certainly is. The two teams have only ever played December games in Virginia, never a September matchup and never at WSU. The Dukes called around to NFL teams to get tips on how to handle playing at altitude, and the program has never before made a trip this far west to play a football game.

The 2017 WSU team was inexperienced in the playoffs. The 2019 team played a secondary full of freshmen and sophomores. James Madison has lost some playmakers from previous matchups, but quarterback Cole Johnson appears to be firing on all cylinders.

As Weber State makes social media calls to pack Stewart Stadium on Saturday night, this short, painful history is the backdrop.

A loss would continue that trend for WSU on the national stage. A win could set up a new best-ever season, or at least put a massive feather in WSU’s cap to have for later playoff consideration.

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