Ratke booted a 46-yard field goal to give the No. 1 Dukes a 31-28 win in the FCS quarterfinals Friday in Harrisonburg, Virginia, ending the best season in Weber State football history.
“This one hurts bad,” WSU head coach Jay Hill said. “We easily could have been moving on. This one hurts and it’s going to hurt for a long time. Hopefully, it will motivate us going into the offseason that we’re right there, but we’ve got to take one more step forward.”
After missed opportunities and despite ball control from James Madison (13-0), the Wildcats (11-3) took a 28-20 lead with 3:14 left when a gutsy, third-down playcall saw quarterback Stefan Cantwell loft the ball to receiver Drew Batchelor in double coverage for a 36-yard touchdown after a fake quarterback keeper.
But James Madison is No. 1 for a reason. The Dukes scored 11 points in the final three minutes to secure the stunning win and extend its winning streak to 25 games.
JMU quarterback Bryan Schor hit Riley Stapleton up the sideline for a 40-yard score that made the game 28-26 with 2:08 left. The Dukes punched in a two-point conversion when Trai Sharp barreled his way into the end zone on the left side.
Schor threw 21 of 45 for 359 yards and a touchdown. Stapleton was his primary target with big plays throughout the game, and he finished with eight catches for 189 yards and the key score.
Weber State couldn’t move the ball to create a winning drive, or at least force overtime, and punted to set up the decisive drive with 1:06 left.
JMU’s winning drive nearly came to an abrupt end deep in Weber territory when an errant Schor pass went right to freshman safety Preston Smith — but the ball went through his hands for an incomplete pass.
The play was one of several missed opportunities that would have made the difference. Senior corner Taron Johnson was a step ahead of a potential pick-six on the same drive.
The most controversial missed opportunity came at the end of the first half. Weber State appeared to take a 14-10 halftime lead when Jonah Williams blocked a field goal as time expired and Xequille Harry scooped it up and ran 60 yards for a touchdown.
But Williams was called for holding as he crashed into the holder during the scramble for the loose ball, and the play was nullified.
“The play at the end of the half, as ridiculous as it was, should have been a huge momentum change for us going into halftime,” Hill said. “You get those balls bouncing on the ground all the time and people scramble for it. For them to call that was a little tough.”
In the end, James Madison outgained Weber 549-329. The Wildcats made key stops all night but began to fade as the game wore late.
“We made just enough mistakes down the stretch and they made enough plays down the stretch to be the difference,” an emotional Hill said after the game. “I blame myself a lot. I should have been able to get those defensive players out of that situation a couple of times, and we didn’t do it.”
Cantwell threw 12 of 30 for 238 yards and two touchdowns. He was also Weber State’s leading rusher with 47 yards on a night where the run game struggled, putting up only 91 total yards.
Unlike many games this season the Wildcat defense started strong. Harry picked off Schor’s first pass of the game and returned it to the 4-yard line. Two plays later, Kevin Smith punched in a 1-yard touchdown to give the Wildcats a quick 7-0 lead just two minutes into the game.
The Dukes responded with a 73-yard touchdown drive, with all six plays coming on the ground, to tie the game.
It was a defensive battle the rest of the half, and Weber held the Dukes to one field goal, turning away would-be touchdown drives.
After gaining only 38 yards in the first half, the Wildcats found some footing offensively to put pressure on the defending champs.
Cantwell found Smith on a wheel route for an 81-yard touchdown pass that gave the Wildcats a 14-10 lead with 7:13 left in the third quarter.
Marcus Marshall dashed for a 20-yard touchdown to give JMU a 17-14 lead early in the fourth. Weber State responded with a four-play, 60-yard drive capped by a 1-yard plunge from Cantwell.
The Dukes cut the deficit to 21-20 on a 40-yard field goal with 7:52 left, setting up the final roller-coaster sequence.
No. 8 Weber State finishes with the most wins and best playoff run in school history after winning a share of the Big Sky Conference championship.
“These players have a lot to be proud of,” Hill said. “I’m proud of them. I’m proud of the way they fought.”