Weber State’s Big Sky Conference campaign has just begun, and now the Wildcats turn to a Homecoming matchup against in-state rival Southern Utah.
The Thunderbirds (1-5, 0-2 Big Sky) are in the midst of a drought in which, going back to WSU’s 2017 playoff win in Cedar City, SUU has won two of its last 18 games.
It’s a tough skid for a team that won the Big Sky title in 2015 and 2017 but otherwise is low on program history and tradition.
The 2019 version of the Thunderbirds has played a tough schedule, with losses to No. 10 Northern Iowa and No. 3 South Dakota State (43-7). SUU has two common opponents with Weber State (3-2, 1-0 Big Sky) thus far: SUU lost to Northern Iowa 34-14 (WSU won 29-17), and each team gave up 24 points to Cal Poly (SUU lost 24-21, Weber won 41-24).
SUU was also uncompetitive in a 52-31 loss to Portland State and its only win was an overtime battle with Stephen F. Austin, a 1-5 team which has a loss to a Division II opponent under its belt.
In short, it’s been a struggle. But SUU was bad last season, too, and caused Weber State a few problems during a 31-18 decision.
“Last year, they didn’t have a really great record but, in my opinion, they came out fighting,” junior quarterback Jake Constantine said. “They returned a kickoff on us, they had a few really nice trick plays, I believe they had the lead first. You just can’t overlook a team like that.
“It’s D-I football, they’re going to have good athletes, their coaches will work hard to beat us. This is a big game for them, it’s a must-win.”
SUU’s best unit is its offense, starting with sophomore Chris Helbig and a fast-paced, quick-hitting passing attack.
Helbig is completing 64.7% of his passes for 233 yards per game, throwing seven touchdowns to four interceptions this season. Lance Lawson has caught more than twice as many passes as the next most productive receiver with 52 receptions for 482 yards.
With James Felila and Thomas Duckett toting the rock, SUU’s run game is tepid, averaging an inefficient 99 rushing yards per contest. Accounting for 76.4% of the team’s rushing attempts, none of Felila (3.3), Duckett (3.8) or Helbig (2.0) hold a formidable yards-per-carry average.
For comparison, Kris Jackson (6.0), Josh Davis (5.2) and Kevin Smith Jr. (4.1) are Weber State’s top rushers (76.7% of team carries between them), all holding better yards-per-carry averages.
The Thunderbirds run a variety of looks at defenses.
“They’ve shown a lot of different plays, they’ve shown a lot of formations. They’re creative with some of the trick plays they run,” WSU head coach Jay Hill said. “They run multiple personnel groups. This is a team where you have to be ready for it all, defensively.”
Southern Utah has struggled, defensively, especially against the run. SUU allows a pass-game average of 209.8 yards per game, second only to Weber State (204.2) in the Big Sky, but allows a league-worst 216.7 rushing yards per game.
The T-Birds change up schemes from week-to-week defensively, Hill said — much more noticeably than small wrinkles most teams usually have — so Weber State might not fully know what defensive look they’re going to see until the game kicks off.
“They might have a completely different game plan for us, which is fine,” Hill said. “I’m excited to watch how the offense handles it. We’ve had opponents like this and the past and they’ve played great.”
It seems a recipe similar to last season’s win might be in order for the Wildcats to find success. WSU outrushed SUU 238-111 in 2018.
Southern Utah’s playoff hopes are almost nonexistent at this point but, in a rivalry, the chance to play spoiler against a top-five team has to be motivating.
Sophomore quarterback Kaden Jenks says that’s why WSU is sticking to the tried-and-true, game-by-game approach.
“We believe that’s how you build Big Sky championships and go on from there,” Jenks said. “We’re going to treat SUU like we do every other opponent. We can’t afford to overlook anything, we know they’re going to come and give us their best shot. So we prepare the same and try to execute what the coaches put out there for us.”
Hill echoed that sentiment.
“It’s a big game. They’re going to play hard. Demario does a great job preparing those guys and we’re going to get their best shot,” he said. “We better be ready for it.”
The game kicks off at 6 p.m. today. It will be air on KJZZ TV in Utah, stream on the Pluto TV app channel 535 and on WatchBigSky.com, and a radio broadcast will air on 1430 AM KLO.
The series history (18-8 in favor of Weber State) became interesting once the Thunderbirds joined the Big Sky, where it is now 4-4. The road team has won the last five contests. SUU’s most recent road wins have included WSU backup quarterbacks throwing handfuls of pick-sixes, where WSU’s recent road wins include a playoff drubbing and a 22-point, fourth-quarter comeback.
ODDS & PREDICTIONS
Sportsbook 5dimes shows Weber State as a 23.5-point favorite in the contest. Combined with the over-under of 58, the odds expect a WSU win of around 40-18.
Jeff Sagarin’s famed rating and prediction model ranks all of Division I, both FBS and FCS. Weber State is ranked 107th and Southern Utah is 202nd (out of 256 teams). His model favors Weber State by 23 points.