James Madison flexes on mistake-prone Weber State for 37-24 victory
OGDEN — The turning point was clear. The mistake, ruinous.
A potential 14-point swing in the second quarter flipped the nation’s marquee FCS nonconference game between No. 9 Weber State and No. 3 James Madison in the Dukes’ favor, then JMU flexed its muscle to open the second half and went on to win 37-24 on Saturday night at Stewart Stadium.
“It was like a bomb went off … like ‘what the heck just happened'” WSU head coach Jay Hill said. “We’ve got to do a better job of handling that adversity and keep fighting.”
Trailing 10-3 with 11:30 left in the second quarter, Weber State’s Mackenzie Morgan bounced a punt out of bounds at the JMU 5, Sherwin Lavaka recorded a tackle for loss, and Marque Collins broke up a sideline route to get WSU the ball back with great field position.
Starting from the James Madison 37, Weber State needed nine plays and two JMU penalties to get into a goal-to-go series, but the Wildcats were there, knocking on the door. On second-and-goal from the 5, Randall Johnson, playing for the injured Bronson Barron, took the snap under center and had his foot stepped on as he began to drop back.
Johnson still tried to twist and hand the ball off to Kris Jackson, which turned out to be ill-advised. The exchange was doomed, the ball popped loose behind everyone and Dukes safety Josh Sarratt scooped the ball off the turf and ran 88 yards unimpeded for a touchdown.
Instead of a potential 10-10 game, James Madison led 17-3. It stunned the crowd of 11,222 fans, the largest crowd Weber State football has drawn since Sept. 6, 2014, when 14,577 came to see the first game of the Hill era against No. 1 North Dakota State.
“We’ve got field position, going in to score. I thought we were playing pretty good at the time,” Hill said. “We had our wind at the back at that point in time. If you can tie it 10-10 and have the wind at your back for the last six minutes, who knows. That was a huge swing in momentum.”
Late in the quarter, Johnson seemed to be rallying the Wildcats (1-2) to a score before halftime and connected with Josh Davis for an 8-yard swing pass and Ty MacPherson for 7 yards over the middle to get to the JMU 40 with 1:13 left.
But the next play, Johnson underthrew a sideline go-route to MacPherson near the end zone and the ball landed in the basket of JMU cornerback Greg Ross for an interception at the 3-yard line.
It didn’t get better after halftime, either. The Dukes took the kickoff after winning the toss to open the game and deferring to the second half. On a second-and-10 from midfield, Austin Douglas took a handoff and cruised 45 yards up the middle to the WSU 5. The Dukes hurried downfield to snap the ball, Weber’s defense did not line up in coverage in time, and Cole Johnson threw an easy 5-yard screen for a touchdown to Antwane Wells Jr.
Just like that, James Madison led 24-3 with 12:15 left in the third quarter.
“I was a little disappointed in the way we started the second half. They were running the ball, that was really their effective time running the ball,” Hill said. “You’ve got to give James Madison credit. They’re a top-two team in the country. They acted like it, they look like it, they’re physical, they execute very well.”
Even after the catastrophic turnover, a stop to open the second half might have left a sliver of hope for Weber State, having already decided to turn to sophomore Kylan Weisser at quarterback. Earlier in the drive that ended with Sarratt’s 88-yard fumble return, Johnson fumbled after narrowly picking up the 1 needed yard on a fourth-and-1 run to the outside, but center Ben Bos recovered it for WSU.
After the game, Hill said turnovers were the primary reason to pull Randall Johnson for Weisser.
Thanks in part to a third-down roughing the passer penalty keeping the drive alive, Weisser helped the Wildcats get off the mat with a 12-yard completion to Randal Grimes, then threw a 12-yard rope into a tiny window between two defenders to Rashid Shaheed that gave WSU a fourth-and-goal at the JMU 1.
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Creyton Cooper came in at QB for his usual run package, took the fourth-down snap, and pulled up to float a touchdown to Hayden Meacham to make it 24-10.
James Madison (3-0) took a drive deep into WSU territory and, to open the fourth quarter, Cole Johnson snapped a pass to Wells Jr. on a slant, and he fought through a tackle for a touchdown and a 34-10 lead.
Weisser connected with Shaheed on a 27-yard sideline strike to make it 37-17 with 5:36 left, WSU quickly got the ball back, and Weisser threw 18 yards to MacPherson and 29 yards to Jon Christensen to the JMU 12. Davis eventually punched in a 2-yard touchdown for the final 37-24 margin with 1:59 left.
For Weber State, Randall Johnson threw 6 of 13 for 69 yards and the interception. Weisser was 13 of 22 for 164 yards and a touchdown. Shaheed caught five balls for 77 yards.
On the ground, Davis netted 59 yards on 16 carries. WSU totaled 92 rushing yards, failing to reach 100 for the third straight time against JMU.
For James Madison, Cole Johnson was 20 of 28 for 177 yards and two scores. Wells Jr. caught eight passes for 76 yards, and Latrele Palmer netted 80 rushing yards on 12 carries.
Preston Smith and George Tarlas each totaled eight tackles with one for loss to lead Weber State.
Preceding the big fumble, Weber State missed an opportunity to make James Madison play from behind. JMU inexplicably kicked the game’s opening kickoff to Shaheed, who returned it 55 yards to the JMU 40.
Even after a penalty after the play lost 15 yards, WSU was in business when Randall Johnson threw a sideline screen to Shaheed, who slipped inside a block and burst upfield for 23 yards.
Davis rushed for another 8 yards, which put the Wildcats in the red zone. Johnson took a 2-yard loss on a run, then got sacked on third down. Kyle Thompson booted a 36-yard field goal to put WSU up 3-0.
JMU answered with a field goal drive of its own, ending when Ethan Ratke kicked a 44-yard field goal to become the all-time leader in FCS career field goals. Ratke also hit two 40-yarders.
Despite holding JMU to 109 yards in the first half, the fumble return changed the tide for Weber State.
“I thought the defense played very well in the first half,” Hill said. “We’ve got to sustain drives. We’ve got to do a better job on third down. We’ve got to land some of the shots we were throwing, run the ball more effectively.”
Weber State must regroup quickly. The Wildcats open Big Sky Conference play by hosting No. 14 UC Davis on Sept. 25.