Weber State football went 21-4 against FCS competition across the 2018-19 seasons. The Wildcats reached the playoff semifinals and were ranked No. 3 in the 2019 postseason rankings.
It’s an unprecedented level of success at WSU, but one thing that’s largely evaded the program since rising to prominence is coupling an explosive offense to couple with its dominant defense, dialed-in special teams and penchant for takeaways.
Though consistency is still elusive, WSU’s offense in the spring 2021 season has connected more often on big plays that can help change the course of a game in an instant — and it’s obvious enough for even somewhat casual fans to notice.
Through three games, Weber State has totaled 11 offensive plays of 30 or more yards — seven pass, four rush. The Wildcats bombarded Idaho State with six of them to open the season in a 49-21 win.
WSU didn’t reach 11 such plays in the 2019 season until the ninth game of the season.
Senior receiver Rashid Shaheed — who, in addition to his 100-yard kick return touchdown last week, has two of the offensively explosive receptions of 30-plus yards this season — said he thinks it’s a matter of focusing on big plays a bit more and being better at executing them.
“We set goals each and every day to try to prepare for the game,” Shaheed said of practicing for big plays. “Going in, knowing the game plan and just ... making the plays work. I feel like we’ve done a better job of that.”
WSU head coach Jay Hill said quarterback play and scheming has allowed the Wildcats to move down the field in chunks.
“One is we have the quarterbacks to throw the ball down the field right now where we didn’t necessarily have that the last couple years to get the ball deep down the field. So that’s one thing that allows us to take those shots,” Hill said. “The other thing is you’ve got to scheme for them and I think (Matt) Hammer is doing a better job of that this year. That’s opened up the run game. Josh Davis has a great yards-per-carry average right now.
“So there’s a lot of things offensively that we’re doing that is good, and the cool thing is I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface of what we can be.”
That’s where improvement comes in. In Saturday’s miracle, 28-23 win over Northern Arizona by virtue of a last-second, 50-yard heave, Weber State scored two touchdowns in the first quarter — one on a big play, one on a more extended drive.
The offense didn’t score again until the final play of the game. Junior quarterback Randall Johnson took five sacks in the first half, then the offense became much more efficient in the second half — but three drives ended in turnovers, two of them inside the red zone.
“There were things that we had schemed for that we didn’t necessarily take advantage of in either half and that’s something Randall’s got to continue to get better at. He doesn’t have to score a touchdown on every play,” Hill said. “His job is to go in there and distribute the ball to the playmakers and let them make the big plays.
“That doesn’t mean he’s not going to chuck the ball down the field or go through his reads, but I felt like in the first half he was basically all or nothing. You just can’t play quarterback that way. You’ve got to be able to take what they give you, distribute the ball to our playmakers.”
WSU was also shut out in the first half against UC Davis before winning 18-13.
Johnson tallied two of the 11 plays of 30-plus yards in his start against NAU, throwing touchdown passes of 44 yards to Shaheed and the 50-yard prayer to Justin Malone. Josh Davis has rushed for three of them (runs of 64, 42 and 35 yards) and Daniel Wright Jr. has rushed for one (61 yards).
Freshman quarterback Bronson Barron has the other five, throwing passes of 48, 55, 38 and 42 against Idaho State and adding a 45-yard pass against UC Davis. He hurt his left wrist in that second game, resulting in medical attention that kept him out against Northern Arizona.
Hill said Tuesday that whoever plays needs to improve consistency with the offense.
“Bronson’s taking some snaps and he’s doing some things that if the doctors clear him, he’ll be ready to go. Randall’s taking all the snaps assuming he’s going to be the guy, and Teryn Berry took snaps today just to make sure he’s ready to go in case we need him,” Hill said. “We’ll be smart, and whoever has to play has got to play well.”