OGDEN — For the second straight season, Weber State football hosts a big non-conference showdown against an opponent from the Missouri Valley Football Conference that can go a long way toward where the Wildcats end up this season.
No. 9 Northern Iowa (2-1) visits No. 5 Weber State (1-2) on Saturday at Stewart Stadium. The Panthers made the playoffs last season, took Iowa State to three overtimes to open this season and have wins over Southern Utah and Idaho State.
“The opportunity is really big,” junior receiver Rashid Shaheed said. “We’re just preaching that we can’t come off the bye week and be sluggish. We have to use the bye week as an advantage and come back fresh.”
Shaheed said Tuesday that players felt good and had a lot of fun, indicating that the bye week benefited his team.
Last season, WSU defeated No. 22 South Dakota 27-10 in its final non-conference game. While USD limped down the stretch, a win over a Missouri Valley team did the same thing a win over Northern Iowa would do this year: supply the Wildcats with a 2-0 record in FCS non-conference games against teams from the subdivision’s best conferences.
The Panthers’ offense is led by redshirt freshman quarterback Will McElvain. In three games, the Iowa native has passed 57 of 93 (61.3% completion) for 621 yards (207 per game), five touchdowns and zero interceptions.
On designed rushes or scrambles on pass plays, McElvain has gained 94 yards on 16 carries. His season total of 19 rushing yards adds up after factoring 10 sacks for a loss of 75 yards.
“The quarterback runs around and makes plays, he’s hard to keep contained so we’re going to have to do a good job of that,” WSU head coach Jay Hill said.
McElvain’s main targets are big ones: 6-foot-3 senior Jaylin James and 6-foot-4 sophomore Isaiah Weston. Add in 5-foot-9 slot receiver Deion McShane, and that trio has caught 69% of McElvain’s passes for 74% of his passing yards.
“They have good personnel,” Hill said. “The O-line is big, they do a good job of staying in front of people. Their wide-outs are experienced, I like all three of their starters — they’re five or six deep, but the three starters have been there and have played a lot of football for them.”
Defensively, Northern Iowa has stood on its head through three games. The Panthers allowed only 29 points to Iowa State even after three overtimes, then 14 points to Southern Utah and six to Idaho State — though the validity of the latter two results may not stand up across the entire season as SUU and ISU are unlikely to be playoff teams and may struggle to reach a .500 mark.
Still, a look that switches from a 4-3 to a 3-3-5, and junior Xavior Williams leading the defense from the safety spot with eight pass breakups should be a test for the Wildcats’ inconsistent offense.
“We just need to communicate more and execute the game plan,” Shaheed said. “They fly around, they compete very well, have a great D-line and a great secondary. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Hill said he feels confident in WSU’s offensive game plan headed into Saturday.
“We’ve got to execute against a really good defense, but I like the game plan going into it,” Hill said.
While the opportunity to score a big victory is obvious, Hill said it’s par for the course for both teams.
“We just need to go do what we do. We’ve been good for a long time, we’ve been in these big games before,” he said.
“You earn these big games. If they were 0-4 and we were 0-4, it wouldn’t be a big game. So they’ve earned it, we’ve earned it. We’ve played well against big schools, they’ve played well against big schools. Now we’ve just got to go cut loose and play the game. That’s why we coach this sport and play this sport, is for these opportunities.”
The game is scheduled to kick off at 6 p.m. It will air on KJZZ TV in Utah with an online simulcast to the Pluto TV app on channel 535 and to WatchBigSky.com. A radio broadcast will air on 1430 AM KLO.
The weather forecast shows rain and thunderstorms arriving in the Ogden area early Saturday. Kickoff time is forecast as 55 degrees as rain is expected to continue through the day.
ODDS & PREDICTIONS
A glance at a few lines shows the game is expected to be as close as a top-10 matchup would suggest.
Sportsbook 5dimes shows Weber State as a 2.5-point favorite in the contest. Combined with the over-under of 35, the odds expect a slugfest somewhere around the tune of 19-16.
Jeff Sagarin’s famed rating and prediction model ranks all of Division I, both FBS and FCS. Weber State is ranked 113th and UNI is 97th. His model favors Northern Iowa by 1.91 points.