Weber State vs. James Madison: Top-10 showdown will help set FCS landscape
Scheduling a game against another top-10 opponent in nonconference play is both a chance to make a statement and a gamble to take before conference play.
It increases the stakes for both No. 9 Weber State and No. 3 James Madison, who meet at 6 p.m. Saturday night at Stewart Stadium in the game of the week across the country at the FCS level as two teams very much used to earning one of the national seeds for the playoffs.
“It can be huge. If you win and continue to win, it can be one of the most important things on your resume for the selection committee,” WSU head coach Jay Hill said. “If you lose, then you better start winning because now it’s going to be sketchy to get one of those seeds and you’re going to have to run your conference or something like that to really prove (it) to them.
“As long as you win and continue to win, it can be an enormous resume builder.”
Here’s a look at a few more storylines heading into the matchup.
James Madison no longer has the defensive end All-Americans from 2019 that helped stifle Weber State. Ron’Dell Carter and John Daka used their final season of eligibility then.
But junior Isaac Ukwu has finally hit the field. JMU head coach Curt Cignetti said Ukwu was so good in 2019 camp, he was going to be part of a three-man rotation at defensive end with Carter and Daka until he hurt a knee.
Then in the spring season, he sat with an injury to his other knee. But last week, he recorded the first sacks of his career, totaling two against Maine. Lineman Bryce Carter has totaled 3.5 tackles for loss and, elsewhere, junior linebacker Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey leads the Dukes with 13 tackles over two games.
Daniel Lin, The Daily News-Record In this Dec. 8, 2017, photo, Weber State coach Jay Hill talks with safety Trey Hoskins (7) during the first half against James Madison in an FCS quarterfinals game in Harrisonburg, Va.
For Weber State, end George Tarlas came alive last week at Dixie State, recording eight tackles and a strip-sack for a forced fumble. James Madison may be starting three freshmen on the offensive line, which could help Tarlas and company get to senior quarterback Cole Johnson, who has diced up JMU’s first two opponents.
WSU end McKade Mitton and tackle Jared Schiess each have 1.5 tackles for loss this season.
Cignetti revealed this week how receiver Riley Stapleton diced up Weber State in the 2019 semifinals matchup. It was the second time Stapleton hurt WSU in the playoffs, and he hauled in nine balls for 162 yards and two touchdowns.
JMU will keep an eye on if Antwane Wells Jr. will factor into a similar situation.
“They play a lot of man coverage, that’s who they are, that’s what they do. They’re not going to change their identity,” Cignetti said about WSU’s defense. “They still sprinkle in three-deep zone and blitz and play zone behind it, but the man-coverage stuff … won’t change.
“The thing they did against us in 2019, which we anticipated they might, was they play that safety really deep and (Brandon) Polk was kind of a one-play, home-run threat, so they really cheated that safety over to Polk’s side. We anticipate we could see that with Antwane.”
MORE WSU-JMU STORIES
Johnson and Johnson: All eyes on quarterbacks
Both teams seek flawless A-game
History against James Madison is short, recent, painful
The Dukes also ground up Weber State with a run game that gained 212 yards on 55 carries. The success of WSU’s man coverage relies on the front seven stopping the run, which will be key for the Wildcats this time around to keep Johnson from throwing all over the field.
On the flip side, WSU couldn’t get Josh Davis going on the ground in 2019 and netted just 70 rushing yards. It seems there’s little chance Weber competes Saturday if Davis, Dontae McMillan and Kris Jackson can’t make a bigger dent on the ground. In two games, McMillan has rushed for 190 yards on 8.3 yards per carry.
Davis missed the road game at Dixie State last week but could have played and will be on the field against JMU.
Quarterback Bronson Barron hurt his MCL and is walking — not immobilized in a brace, Hill says — but his progress when it comes to playing this week is uncertain, and it seems most likely Randall Johnson starts.
Senior offensive lineman Ty Whitworth missed the first game of his career last week after being hurt in the opener at Utah, but Hill says the team is expecting Whitworth to play this week. It’s the same expectation for senior receiver Davis Ames, who missed the first game after being in COVID protocol and apparently couldn’t return to practice in time to play in the second game.
The status of offensive lineman Ethan Atagi, who was the planned starter at left guard, is unclear. He has not played this season.
Running back Kris Jackson is fully healthy and ready to go, Hill says, after dealing with a hamstring issue early this season. He rushed seven times for 24 yards and a score last week.
Junior tight end Jordan Allen is recovering from hip pain and will be a boost whenever he is able to return.
“He’s practicing right now. He looks good. He’s a big, strong, physical athlete. We’ve just got to get him honed in on where we can best use him,” Hill said.
Weber State has advertised the matchup as a “blackout game,” where WSU will wear its all-black uniforms and give away 2,000 T-shirts to lucky fans.
The Wildcats are 3-0 in such games in the last two seasons. In 2019, WSU defeated Northern Arizona 51-28 and Montana 17-10. In the spring 2021 season, the Wildcats beat UC Davis 18-13.
There’s a chance weather plays a part in the big game. After seemingly endless summer heat, Saturday’s forecast calls for a high of just 72 degrees, with temperatures around 70 for the 6 p.m. kickoff. As of Friday morning, thunderstorms are forecasted as possible from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.
ODDS & PREDICTIONS
For entertainment purposes only, Sportsbook Review shows James Madison as a 6.5-point betting favorite.
Jeff Sagarin’s long-standing system that rates FBS and FCS football together shows James Madison ranked No. 93 nationally and Weber State No. 112. Using his rating metrics and accounting for home-field advantage, Sagarin’s numbers favor JMU by 2.39 points.
TV & RADIO
KJZZ TV will broadcast the game over the air and on cable in Utah. Dave Fox, Alema Harrington and Frank Dolce will be on the call. This broadcast will be carried nationwide on the ESPN+ subscription service, which is available on the ESPN mobile/streaming app or on WatchESPN.com.
Weber State’s radio call will feature Tony Parks and Jerry Graybeal on 103.1 FM and 1031thewave.com.