OGDEN — Another week, another win for the Cardiac ’Cats — and this one brought some history.
Trailing late in the fourth quarter, No. 3 Weber State engineered a touchdown drive with two minutes remaining and Daniel Wright Jr.’s 6-yard diving score delivered a 20-15 win over Idaho State, giving the Wildcats their fourth consecutive Big Sky title and first outright championship in program history.
“To be able to share this with these seniors, these guys are the leaders on our team. They deserve, for sure, a fourth ring and first time outright … that’s a big deal,” freshman quarterback Bronson Barron said. “I love every single guy on this team, everyone on this squad loves one another. It’s one big family. To be able to share that win with your family is huge.”
Despite some warts, the 5-0 Wildcats used a strong defense to avoid full trip-ups and are the only team in the Big Sky’s shortened spring season to win every game in front of them.
“We have it all to ourselves,” senior linebacker Conner Mortensen said. “It’s been a crazy year, we’ve been working hard trying to make it happen.”
Mortensen made a key play early in the third quarter after Idaho State (2-4) came out of halftime with its foot on the gas. After an inefficient first half, junior quarterback Tyler Vander Waal led the Bengals on a decisive drive inside the WSU 10 before Mortensen slammed him to the turf on a first-and-goal passing attempt.
Vander Waal left the game hurt. Weber held ISU to a Kevin Ryan 28-yard field goal and kept a 7-6 lead.
Weber State got going to end the quarter after trading punts to create good field position at its own 44-yard line. A third-and-12 pass from Barron to Rashid Shaheed went for 11 yards as the quarter ended.
Freshman running back Dontae McMillan picked up the first down to open the fourth quarter, then Barron hit tight end Justin Malone for 35 yards up the seam for a touchdown on the next play, making it 14-6.
Just when it seemed like WSU could take control with Idaho State hobbled at signal-caller, Vander Waal returned during the next drive and threw strikes of 19, 26 and 10 yards, the final to Christian Frederickson for a touchdown to make it 14-12 with 10:58 left in the game.
Mortensen again drilled Vander Waal on the ensuing two-point conversion try, which Vander Waal threw incomplete out of the end zone.
WSU quickly gave the ball back and, despite starting its next drive at its own 10, Idaho State threatened after Vander Waal extended a broken play and threw a 55-yard bomb to Tanner Conner behind the defense to the WSU 15.
“He’s a tough guy and I told him that after the game. I put some pretty good licks on him ... he came back in and was still ballin’,” Mortensen said.
Vander Waal had Conner in the end zone on a third-and-goal from the 5 with a quick back-shoulder throw, but WSU cornerback Eddie Heckard appeared to get enough of a finger on the pass to disrupt the completion. Ryan put through a 23-yarder and, with 5:25 left, Weber State found itself trailing 15-14.
“No one was nervous, no one was doubting. We knew we were going to go down and score,” Barron said. “Unfortunately we don’t like to be in that situation where we have to score with five minutes left, but it happened. You look at the eyes of every single guy in that huddle and you knew we were going to go down and do what we needed to do.”
Helped by pass interference and defensive holding penalties, Barron threw twice to Ty MacPherson to get WSU in striking distance, the second a 16-yard ball at the sideline that MacPherson secured at the ISU 6.
Wright Jr. took a handoff on the next play, stiff-armed the first attacker, then found the edge and dove for the pylon and a touchdown. Quantraill Morris-Walker drilled David Ames on a two-point pass attempt to keep him from the goal line, but Weber State led 20-15 with two minutes left.
With two strong drives in the quarter, it felt as though two minutes would be too much for Idaho State.
After picking up a first down on short throws to Xavier Guillory, Vander Waal fired what he thought would be an out to Frederickson at the sideline. Frederickson kept going, and WSU cornerback Marque Collins followed the throw. Collins toed the sideline, nabbed the back-end of the football and secured it for an interception at the WSU 45 — ISU’s only turnover of the game — to seal the win.
“Marque has been battling injuries all year so to see him make that play, he deserved it,” Mortensen said. “It’s fun watching each other make plays. Everyone’s flying around, our defense is always hungry.”
The win gave Weber State its 11th straight home victory, a new program record.
WSU’s celebration of the interception was raucous and drew an unsportsmanlike penalty, but the team was more reserved when the clock hit zeroes. Head coach Jay Hill said that’s both good and bad.
“I think this team’s got to that point. But, the reality is as fun as winning is, there’s a little disappointment that maybe we didn’t play a little better,” Hill said. “That’s one thing you never want to do as a player, coach a fan, is don’t take winning for granted because it’s too flippin’ hard to win in college football today.
“You play the game to win and these guys have done that. They’ve won five in a row, they’re conference champs. Do we need to get better? Sure. The goal right now is to get better every week and that can still take place. We can hit stride. The best teams usually hit stride as the season goes on and we still can do that.”
Defensively, Weber State did plenty enough to win, holding the Bengals to 99 rushing yards and Vander Waal to a 19-of-41 clip for 268 yards, one score and the one interception. The 55-yarder that help ISU take the lead stood as the lone, big blemish defensively, and helped Conner finish with six catches for 98 yards.
Offensively, untimely turnovers and missing scoring opportunities hurt Weber State again, and that’s where key improvement can take place.
With the score 0-0, the Wildcats took their final drive of the first quarter inside the red zone when Malone fumbled after a completion at the ISU 11.
On their next possession, backup quarterback Randall Johnson fumbled away a first-down rush to give Idaho State a 21-yard field. WSU hassled the Bengals into two incompletions and Ryan kicked through a 35-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.
Later in the half, MacPherson secured a spectacular, one-handed, 60-yard deep ball down the sideline while fighting off an ISU defender that put Weber State near the goal line. McMillan rushed in a 2-yard touchdown for a 7-3 lead with 3:26 left in the half.
The Wildcats quickly forced a Bengals punt, which Shaheed returned 16 yards to midfield. The drive reached the ISU 6 when Barron took an untimely sack on third down. Weber State called timeout with two seconds left and Kyle Thompson appeared to put through a 29-yarder as time expired, but ISU was awarded a timeout before the kick. On the second kick, Thompson missed left and the score remained 7-3.
Another way improvement can come is through health, which the coming bye week will assist. Weber State has the week off before the playoff selection show on Sunday morning, April 18, and is likely to host a first-round game on April 24.
WSU played the game without running back Josh Davis, and starting defensive end George Tarlas left early with an injury, in addition to continued injuries to linebacker Noah Vaea and others. Hill said he was down to two total defensive ends for most of the game.
“We did what we had to do. We still have a lot of improvement we can make on both sides of the ball, and special teams. I was happy with the way we overcame so many critical, key injuries,” Hill said. “A lot of critical things that we were able to overcome. I’m proud of the players, the coaches, first outright conference championship in school history is a big deal … there’s so many good things going on and I’m happy with where the program is heading still.”
Barron finished throwing 15 of 24 for 258 yards. MacPherson hauled in four catches for 108 yards and Malone added three catches for 63 yards. Shaheed caught six passes for 56 yards.
McMillan rushed 21 times for 90 yards, and Wright Jr. added 37 yards on 10 carries.
Mortensen led the Wildcats with 11 tackles, including two for loss. Heckard added seven tackles and Okiki Olorunfunmi tallied WSU’s lone defensive sack.
Weber State now leads the all-time series against Idaho State 46-15, including seven consecutive wins, and is 24-5 in Ogden with 18 straight victories.
AROUND THE BIG SKY
No. 9 Eastern Washington held off Idaho 38-31 on a late interception to finish 5-1. The Eagles likely clinched a playoff spot with the win and should also host a home game in the first round. With UC Davis at 3-2, it seems the Big Sky may secure only the two playoff berths.