OGDEN — Mother Nature rolled changes through Stewart Stadium on Friday night, starting with light snow, then heavy snow, then rain mixed with swirling fog.
Early on, it seemed like an omen of a dreary, flat Weber State performance and another playoff quarterfinal exit. But the Wildcats emerged from the halftime locker room with a new energy, using big plays on defense and special teams to fuel a rise to unprecedented heights.
No. 3 Weber State turned a 7-3 halftime deficit into a 17-10 victory over No. 6 Montana late Friday night at Stewart Stadium, advancing the Wildcats to the national semifinals for the first time in program history.
“It’s a big win for our program. I thought our defense played outstanding,” WSU head coach Jay Hill said. “I’m very proud of the seniors ... I can’t say enough about their preparation and their leadership, and what those guys mean to this team.”
Senior defensive end Adam Rodriguez tied a program record with four sacks in the contest and the Wildcats totaled six sacks while forcing five turnovers — all interceptions — to frustrate Montana on drive after drive.
The Wildcats (11-3) were outgained 170-38 in the first half and it felt for all the world that WSU, who lost 35-16 in Missoula last month, would be outmatched again by the Griz.
But Weber’s offense used its first drive of the second half to show otherwise. Jake Constantine found tight end Justin Malone for a 32-yard gainer on a third down to get WSU rolling. Then, on a third-and-4 from the Montana 11, Josh Davis returned to action.
Davis had left the game early in the second quarter with a right leg injury Hill later called a hip pointer-type malady that would shoot pain up Davis’ back with nearly any kind of motion.
Davis checked in and briefly feigned a block on the left side defensive end as the rest of the play rolled right. Davis released his block and stood all alone in the flat, scampering 11 yards for a touchdown after Constantine turned and threw to him on the back side of the play.
Suddenly, Weber State led 10-7 with 9:46 left in the third quarter.
“We played angry, I would say,” Rodriguez said. “The last game, we went in there and they kind of smacked us around. This game we just showed what real Weber State football is like, and that’s hard-nosed football and great defense.”
Despite kicker Trey Tuttle having to fall on a bad field goal snap and having another kick blocked, WSU held on to the lead thanks to interceptions from George Tarlas and Noah Vaea.
The game stalemated until Montana (10-4) took the ball at its own 15 with 10 minutes left.
UM quarterback Dalton Sneed was off target to the right sideline on first and second downs before lofting a third-down pass deep into double coverage down the left sideline. Eddie Heckard nearly secured his second interception of the game but had his legs taken out while coming down with the ball and couldn’t hang on.
That ended up being a blessing in disguise for the Wildcats and set up the game’s decisive play.
Freshman defensive back Ja’Kobe Harris slid behind the blocking scheme on the ensuing punt, batting an Adam Wilson boot out of the air. The ball bounded backward toward the end zone, where Harris fell on it for a touchdown.
Weber led 17-7 with 9:41 left.
Montana wasn’t done. It took its next drive 16 plays and 71 yards inside the Weber 10. Conner Mortensen and McKade Mitton combined to sack Sneed on first-and-goal and, on third-and-goal from the 9, Rodriguez recorded his final sack.
The Griz took 6:16 off the clock and managed just a field goal, a 27-yard make by Brandon Purdy, to make it 17-10 with 3:23 left. Despite ultimately being outgained 274-113, WSU’s defense stood on its head at all the right moments.
Weber State punted back to Montana 30 seconds later after the Griz exhausted all their timeouts. Sneed connected with Jerry Louie-McGee for 19 yards on third down to get Montana to midfield but, on the next play, Tarlas again dropped back from his defensive end spot to intercept Sneed, effectively ending the ballgame.
“I’m grateful, really. I don’t know how I ended up there,” Tarlas said. “I just did my job, I was just trying to hide from the quarterback and show up at the end and get the pick ... I don’t know how I ended up getting the picks, we’ve been doing these plays before but this week the quarterback ended up throwing it my way so I had to take advantage of that.”
Sneed threw for 257 yards and a score but, after throwing just nine interceptions in his first 390 attempts of the season, the senior ended his college career tossing five picks in 48 attempts Friday.
Constantine finished 10 of 22 for 70 yards, his top plays coming on the offense’s lone touchdown drive to open the second half. Running back Kevin Smith carried the load with Davis hobbled, rushing 20 times for 37 yards as the Wildcats played turnover-free and maintained its lead in the second half.
“Lack of offensive efficiency is a little frustrating but I will say this: the offense did a phenomenal job under those conditions of not turning the ball over,” Hill said.
Vaea and Marque Collins led WSU with nine tackles and Mortensen had eight as the Wildcats tallied nine tackles for loss. Maxwell Anderson recorded an interception and three additional pass breakups.
Weber State advances to play a semifinal road game at No. 2 seed James Madison (13-1), on Saturday, Dec. 21, with game time to be determined later — reprising the Wildcats’ 2017 quarterfinal trip to Harrisonburg, Virginia, where they lost 31-28 when No. 1 JMU made a field goal as time expired.
“We said we wanted to take another step forward this year. This is part of that step,” Hill said. “I don’t think we’ve finished it yet. We want to be mentioned with the elite teams in the country ... Our players and myself, we’re not content with where we’re at yet. We still have bigger goals ahead of us.”
No. 5 seed Montana State defeated Austin Peay 24-10 on Friday night, marking only the second time ever the Big Sky has sent two teams into the national semifinals.
HOME SWEET HOME
Weber State is now 27-4 at home in the last five seasons and 19-2 in the last three. Both losses in the last three seasons came to ranked teams while, this season, the Wildcats defeated ranked/playoff opponents Northern Iowa, North Dakota, Kennesaw State and Montana at Stewart Stadium.