Weber State vs. James Madison: Both teams seek flawless A-game
For its 50-year history — 30 at the FCS level — James Madison (situated in Virginia) has never traveled past the central time zone to play a college football game — and its first such trip is against a top-10 opponent at altitude in the opponents’ home opener.
With the two best teams of Weber State’s current six-year surge into national prominence, the Wildcats twice were stonewalled against JMU in the playoffs and, in some ways, the Dukes symbolize a hump WSU can’t get over, an all-around consistency the Wildcats just haven’t quite grasped at the highest level.
It’s for these reasons and more that No. 9 Weber State and No. 3 James Madison know their best will be required Saturday in Ogden. Each side implies that near perfection will be required to win.
“Each time we see them, we know it’s going to be a battle. We’ve been emphasizing since … as soon as the (Dixie State) game ended on Saturday that we have these guys next,” WSU senior receiver Rashid Shaheed said. “We know what they’re about. We know it’s going to be a war. We know we have to execute.
“You have to play a flawless game against these guys. They’re a good team, they’re going to come out and compete, they’re going to be ready. We just have to execute and follow the game plan.”
Weber State nearly had a flawless game in 2017 against the No. 1 Dukes. Just one more first down in the fourth quarter and an upset of upsets would have been the Wildcats’.
In 2019, that level wasn’t quite there for WSU. James Madison got up 17-0 early. The Wildcats finally answered with 1:23 left in the half, closing a 63-yard drive with a touchdown to make it 17-7.
The Dukes got down the field and threw a 34-yard touchdown pass as time expired on the half. It felt like an unrecoverable punch to the stomach, and, making it 24-7 at halftime, it ended up functioning like that on the chilly Dec. 21 night.
That touchdown pass was an example of what Shaheed said. JMU’s Riley Stapleton came open right across the middle, and a deep, 34-yard pass cleanly caught for a touchdown at the goal line with no time left is not great defensive execution.
“I do think we’re a much more experienced team than we were in 2019,” WSU head coach Jay Hill said. “We went in there with an immature, inexperienced team. I think we’re much more experienced now, which is good. It’s basically the same guys who played against them in ’19 so I hope we go in there and handle it the right way.”
JMU mistakes nearly put the 2017 matchup away for Weber State. Xequille Harry returned an interception inside the JMU 10 in the first quarter that led to an early 7-0 lead, and Jonah Williams blocked a field goal to end the first half that Harry returned for a TD. The Dukes were saved on the last one because a penalty negated the score.
“It’s going to be a very tough test for us. We are going to have to play our A-game, and go on the road in a hostile environment, keep our poise every play, play in play out, from beginning to end, to come out with the result that we want,” third-year JMU head coach Curt Cignetti said. “We’re going to have to have a great week of preparation, be dialed in and focused.”
Though Weber State may not sell out all 17,312 seats, it seems likely that WSU hosts the most fans at Stewart Stadium of the Jay Hill era (2014-present).
“We need to take our game a step further. We improved last week, we’ve got to improve this week,” Cignetti said.