OGDEN — No. 4 Weber State went to halftime tied 7-7 with struggling in-state rival Southern Utah on Saturday at Stewart Stadium.
It went without saying in the locker room that it wasn’t the start WSU expected.
“It was pretty much demeanor, nothing was said, really,” junior running back Kevin Smith said. “We just looked around and knew what we had to do.”
On a day when 11 of 22 active ranked teams lost, Weber State emerged in the second half to score three touchdowns, force three interceptions and defeat Southern Utah 29-14 to move to 2-0 in Big Sky play and 4-0 against FCS opponents this season.
“I love this team. You don’t have to say anything to them,” WSU head coach Jay Hill said. “The senior leadership takes over and, really ... it’s an impressive team if you see them behind the scenes. Not much was said. You can see, it’s a quiet confidence. They know we let some things slip in the first half.”
Of WSU’s four total interceptions in the game, it was linebacker BJ Taufalele’s third-quarter interception that finally turned the tide for the Wildcats (4-2, 2-0 Big Sky).
A risky punt where Doug Lloyd held on to the ball until the last possible second, punting from WSU’s own end zone and being hit as he kicked, set up Southern Utah at midfield. But two plays later, defensive lineman McKade Mitton deflected a Chris Helbig pass at the line of scrimmage and Taufalele ran under it, returning it 22 yards to the SUU 38.
Smith ripped runs of 19 and 10 yards to put Weber knocking on the door. The short drive ended when Kaden Jenks threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to David Ames and Weber took a 14-7 lead with 5:28 left in the third quarter.
Smith finished with 108 yards on 16 carries, a healthy 6.8 yards per carry, to lead WSU’s offense.
After a defensive stop, Rashid Shaheed returned a punt 90 yards for a touchdown that was called back to the WSU 47 on a block in the back penalty.
Jenks completions to Shaheed and Justin Malone helped WSU drive inside the SUU 10.
After the quarter break, Adam Rodriguez took the field in a new offensive package for the Wildcats, taking a snap in the shotgun and barreling 3 yards to give Weber a 20-7 lead with 14:29 left in the contest.
Helbig, SUU’s sophomore quarterback, then threw a pick to Marque Collins that set up a 60-yard drive for WSU, capped when Kris Jackson punched in a 1-yard score for a 26-7 lead with 9:56 left.
The Thunderbirds (1-6, 0-3) had to abandon their struggling run game altogether and Helbig delivered a few fourth-down conversions, including a 30-yard touchdown to Landen Measom, to make it 26-14.
Eddie Heckard recorded the final interception with 3:39 left, wrestling a 50/50 ball away from Measom. WSU used the short field for Trey Tuttle to punch through a 42-yard field goal for the final margin.
“We wanted to get off to a fast start and we kind of did that by going up 7-0, and then we gave Southern Utah every reason in the world to want to play hard against us,” Hill said. “The first half was a little bit of a downer. The way we started the second half was awesome as we broke open a three-score lead.”
Hill said he wasn’t concerned with Helbig throwing 23 of 42 for 305 yards because his team turned the game into one where SUU would have to throw every down, and ended up getting four interceptions as a result.
Offense is another story. Smith led an attack that totaled 198 rushing yards, dropping below 200 on a final-play kneeldown. Jenks threw 13 of 22 for 137 yards but, minus a 40-yard completion to Ty MacPherson, WSU produced 97 passing yards on 12 completions.
“We’ve got to get much better throwing the ball right now. We can run it, we’ve got three great running backs ... we’ve got to get better at throwing it.”
Injuries continued to dictate Weber’s quarterback situation. Junior Jake Constantine started last week at Idaho in a game WSU scored 41 points because Jenks had a banged up shoulder.
This week, Hill said Jenks’ shoulder was healthier than Constantine’s knee, which he injured more than one month ago.
“Jake should be back 100% next week and, hopefully, for the first time in a long time, we’ll have them both healthy,” Hill said. “We need to get the healthy guy on the field and we’ve got to get that guy getting the ball to the right players at the right time.”
MacPherson’s 40-yarder led WSU receivers in yardage. Ames caught four passes for 24 yards, Devon Cooley caught two balls for 24 yards and Shaheed two balls for 18 yards.
Josh Davis rushed 10 times for 49 yards and Jackson added 20 yards on the ground. Shaheed added a 9-yard rushing touchdown in the first half.
WSU held SUU to 69 rushing yards on 30 attempts. Measom hauled in four catches for 79 yards to lead T-Bird receivers.
Jonah Williams, Jared Schiess and George Tarlas each recorded sacks for Weber, with Williams sacking Helbig on fourth down to end SUU’s final possession. Heckard and Preston Smith led WSU with nine tackles each. Noah Vaea had eight tackles and Williams seven.
It was the first time the home team has won in the WSU-SUU rivalry since 2006. SUU had won four straight in Ogden before Saturday.
Weber State next stays home to face Northern Arizona (3-3, 1-1) on Oct. 19. That all-time series is 26-26 and Hill is 0-4 against the Lumberjacks.