FCS Playoffs: Weber State football routs North Dakota in first half, wins 38-31
OGDEN — For the first 25 minutes of their first-round playoff matchup, No. 9 Weber State thoroughly beat No. 20 North Dakota at its own game.
The Wildcats’ run game was unrelenting and WSU committed zero penalties. Meanwhile the Fighting Hawks, the nation’s least penalized team, took five penalties — four of which were defensive flags that advanced WSU drives — and could not move the ball.
By the time North Dakota finally got some offense and a score on a fluke play blown by two sets of officials, the game was mostly decided.
Weber State surged ahead 24-0 in the second quarter on the way to a 38-31 win over North Dakota to open the playoffs at snow-flurried Stewart Stadium.
The win advances Weber State to the second round where it will face No. 4 seed Montana State (10-1) at 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3, in a repeat trip to Bozeman, Montana.
With junior quarterback Tommy Schuster slinging the ball around the field in the second half (on his way to 23 of 43 for 184 yards and three scores), the Hawks made a game of it. And in the end, it was the same as the previous five Jay Hill vs. Bubba Schweigert meetings between the two squads: no matter how the margin changed through the game, it ended as a one-score contest.
So both coaches were as complimentary about each other after the game as they were before it, with Hill and WSU moving to 5-1 all-time in the series.
“Tough game, hard-fought game. We knew it would be. Coach Schweigert does a phenomenal job with his teams,” Hill said. “We knew we were going to have to earn it, even when we were up 21 late.”
It’s Weber State’s eighth playoff win in school history, and six since Hill took the reins in 2014.
“One-score games, that’s what we play with them. It’s two competitive teams,” Schweigert said. “I respect the way they play … they’ve been good for a long time.”
Weber State (10-2) had two running backs go for more than 100 yards on the way to chewing up the North Dakota defense for 330 rushing yards. Josh Davis finished with 129 yards on 21 carries and Damon Bankston added 122 yards on 15 carries.
It’s the first time since 2019 against Northern Arizona (Davis 328, Kris Jackson 111) that Weber had two 100-yard rushers in a game.
Davis turned in his best game since rushing for 94 yards at Utah State, going in and out of the lineup while banged up by injury throughout the season.
“It felt good, it was fun,” Davis said. “We’ve got a great O-line, great offensive coordinator, wide receivers blocking on the outside. It was great to be back in there playing semi-full speed.”
WSU gained 322 yards in the first half, mostly on the ground. Davis rushed 90 yards for a touchdown, Bankston for 84 yards with a touchdown, and Dontae McMillan 53 yards and a touchdown. The Wildcats ran for 6.5 yards per carry in the first half.
“They got us off to the right start that we needed,” Hill said. “The lead ballooned, which is kind of what we talked about all week is not letting them bleed the clock, and the defense getting out of drives and the offense being able to go down and score was huge.”
As Weber led 24-0 with 4:50 left in the first half, North Dakota (7-5) had 46 yards of offense on 20 plays. But the Fighting Hawks caught a break on a baffling gaffe from game officials to get on the board when Schuster threw an incomplete pass forward 12 yards while the ball slipped out of his hands.
On-field referees did not blow the play dead, so Isaiah Smith picked up the ball and ran 63 yards for a North Dakota touchdown. The play was immediately reviewed as UND’s offense returned to the field at the original line of scrimmage, expecting the play to be reversed.
Despite clear evidence of a forward pass, the replay booth let the play stand and UND cut the score to 24-7.
“They just said that on the review, they couldn’t tell that the quarterback for sure had control in his hand so that’s why it stood,” Hill recounted as the explanation he was given. “The refs were actually correct, in my opinion, of not blowing that dead. You’ve got to let those play out and let the review handle it.
“But that’s what I talk about, that’s the adversity, those are the crazy things that happen in the frame of a game. Handle it, deal with it. That’s part of the game.”
Weber State answered with a 10-play drive, called timeout on fourth down with 35 seconds left, then Bronson Barron threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Hayden Meacham, bobbling the lofted pass before securing it and dragging a defender across the goal line, for a 31-7 advantage.
North Dakota stayed in the game when Tyler Hoosman ripped a 72-yard run up the middle, going out of bounds at the WSU 5 with 10 seconds left. Schuster threw an easy play-action touchdown to tight end Jaden Norby on the next play.
That made it 31-14 at halftime, but only after Abraham Williams had a 75-yard kickoff returned for a touchdown negated by a block below the waist on the opposite side of his return as the first-half clock expired.
“That really changed how we were approaching the game as players. We knew that we were still in this and just not to give up on the game,” UND linebacker Devon Krzanowski said.
The advanced-fumble-incomplete-pass touchdown appeared to matter a great deal when North Dakota returned the opening kickoff of the second half 60 yards to the Weber State 38.
But the Wildcats’ defense stopped a screen pass short of a first down at WSU 6 and, on fourth-and-3, North Dakota opted for a 23-yard Brady Stevens field goal to make the score 31-17.
Weber State kept running the football and kept a drive alive that ultimately put the game away on a UND pass interference with a slant thrown to Jacob Sharp on fourth-and-1.
Davis then made two guys miss on a third-down conversion near the goal line, then punched in a 2-yard touchdown to put WSU up 38-17 with 6:25 left in the third quarter.
North Dakota mounted a 12-play, 80-yard drive to cut it to 38-24 with 9:48 left, scoring on a 7-yard drag route to tight end Adam Zavalney.
A false start hurt Weber State’s next drive, forcing the Wildcats to punt for just the second time in the game. The Fighting Hawks took advantage, with Schuster slowly passing UND down the field on an 11-play, 74-yard drive, capping it with a 4-yard corner route to Jack Wright to make it 38-31 with 3:04 left.
So then the odd incomplete pass-advanced fumble play, and a 34-yard field goal Kyle Thompson missed for WSU late in the third quarter, loomed large.
But WSU tight end Justin Malone recovered the ensuing onside kick, Weber ran the clock under 2 minutes and punted to the UND 16 with 1:49 left.
After North Dakota picked up one first down, WSU defensive end Jack Kelly stripped a scrambling Schuster from behind, a loss of 11 yards when the fumbled ball bounced out of bounds, and the Hawks eventually turned the ball over on downs — allowing WSU to end the game with two kneel-downs.
“We got out to a great start. Don’t love giving up the last two touchdown drives that they got but proud of the defense getting out of the last one. That was huge,” Hill said.
Weber State began to build the big first-half lead on a 96-yard drive led by the run game but sparked by a Barron-to-Jon Christensen skinny post for 46 yards. That set up McMillan for a 2-yard touchdown around the left end to make it 7-0 with 5:01 left in the first quarter.
Thompson booted through a 40-yard field goal to open the second quarter and, on the next drive, Davis scampered 30 yards for a score to make it 17-0 with 7:28 left in the half.
The defense, meanwhile, was making great individual plays, sticking with assignments to turn away what Hill calls a “creative” North Dakota offense.
On a short third down in the first quarter, UND showed three tight ends and leaked one out deep behind the play but WSU safety Desmond Williams went with him, forcing Schuster into a hard pass across the field and incomplete. Kelly did the same on a later series, dropping in coverage with a leaking tight end and breaking up a pass when UND had its run-first QB in.
“You’ve got to be assignment-sound and you’ve got to be tough. You’ve got no shot at beating North Dakota unless you’re those two things,” Hill said.
And cornerback Eddie Heckard added: “We knew they liked the throwbacks to the tight ends, late leak-outs and all that type of stuff, so that’s what we were prepared for.”
Bankston did the same as Davis on the next drive, bursting 39 yards to the left side and winding to the end zone for a 24-0 lead with 4:50 left in the half.
That set the table for the bizarre incompletion-called-fumble that got the visiting Fighting Hawks going.
Barron finished 5 of 11 for 110 yards and the TD to Meacham. Christensen had two catches for 58 yards and Ty MacPherson pulled down one 24-yarder — a fantastic, one-handed grab at the sideline that set up the short Davis rushing TD that made it 38-17.
Heckard led WSU with nine tackles, Winston Reid totaled seven tackles with one sack, and Maxwell Anderson added three tackles and two pass breakups.
The big 72-yarder boosted Hoosman to 138 yards on 14 carries to lead North Dakota. Garett Maag caught five passes for 63 yards.