OGDEN — A novel spring football season made short by pandemic postponement has not lacked for drama.
A breakout performance from a freshman quarterback to start the season followed by three grind-it-out, close-call victories leads to a regular-season finale Saturday that is as must-win for Weber State football as the four before it.
The short season and smaller playoff field leaves little room for error, and that will play out one final time as the No. 3 Wildcats (4-0) host a competitive Idaho State (2-3) squad looking to play the role of payback spoiler.
A win gives Weber State an outright Big Sky championship — its fourth consecutive league title — and leaves no doubt as to its postseason chances, securing the conference’s automatic bid to the 16-team playoff.
WSU opened this season with a 49-21 win in Pocatello that opened with 1.5 quarters of scoreless football before the Wildcats outscored ISU 42-7 over the subsequent 1.5 quarters.
“Every game is so different — the swings in momentum, the execution. I don’t believe that they’re going to change that much, we’re not going to drastically change. It’s going to come down to who can execute better when the ball is kicked off on this Saturday,” WSU head coach Jay Hill said. “There’s been some injuries along the way but the players will mostly be the same. We’re hoping we can go out and play as well as we did the first time.”
After that opener, the Bengals squeaked out a 26-24 win at Southern Utah on a field goal in the last 10 seconds before losing two tough ones.
At home, ISU led now-No. 9 Eastern Washington 42-31 with 9 minutes left before losing 46-42 in the final minute. On the road, Idaho State led now-No. 13 UC Davis 27-24 with 4 minutes left before losing 31-27 in the closing seconds.
Last week, the Bengals opened a 14-0 lead on Idaho, saw it dissipate to a 15-14 deficit, then went on to win 24-22.
Tyler Vander Waal has thrown every pass for ISU this season. He was an inefficient 17 of 42 (40.4%) for 304 yards against Weber State, grabbing chunks of yardage after falling behind 42-7. He threw three touchdowns, two interceptions and was sacked five times in that game. In the four games since, he’s 80 of 132 (60.6%) for eight touchdowns and six interceptions, averaging 318 yards per game.
Hill said his defense performed last week against Southern Utah in a way that is “becoming more like we want to be,” which could help stave off Vander Waal and ISU receiver Tanner Conner, who hauled in nine catches for 208 yards last week to help beat Idaho.
Last week, Southern Utah averaged a paltry 2.3 yards per carry and 4.2 yards per pass attempt against Weber State, scoring one offensive touchdown in a 19-16 loss after averaging 30.8 points per game before that.
Still, Weber State knows its offensive struggles must improve to compete at a level that matches its aspirations.
Freshman quarterback Bronson Barron broke out to throw for 312 yards and four touchdowns on just 27 attempts in the Feb. 27 opener at Idaho State.
After that, WSU took an unexpected bye week due to COVID-19 issues at Cal Poly, came out sluggish against a solid UC Davis team, and Barron broke a bone in his left wrist and played through it. He missed the next game, in which junior Randall Johnson threw a 50-yard Hail Mary to beat Northern Arizona, before Barron returned last week to throw 13 of 23 for 167 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions in windy conditions.
WSU’s offense has been undone by key mistakes in the red zone, aside from the scintillating opener at ISU. The Wildcats gave away an interception and a fumble in red-zone situations against NAU. At SUU, freshman running back Dontae McMillan appeared to score on a second-and-goal from the 6, it wasn’t called that way, and the subsequent third-and-goal from the 1 was stuffed. The Wildcats settled for a field goal, which did hold up as the winning margin.
That’s where junior receiver Ty MacPherson says his team needs to improve.
“There’s been a lot of times where the play-calling is really good and we just don’t take advantage of the opportunities,” MacPherson said. “We’re just doing some things that we don’t usually do in practice. So going into the game with high expectations and doing what we’ve been doing in practice, and just executing, I think we’ll see a lot more success than what we’ve been seeing.
“If you don’t score touchdowns in those opportunities, that can be a momentum killer and really hurt the team. Field goals can be critical and can help the team; we really want to be scoring touchdowns.”
A string of seemingly lucky close calls — sometimes requiring near-miraculous moments like a fumbled kickoff return, or a last-second heave — dot their way across the last three seasons in which WSU is 25-4 against FCS teams. MacPherson thinks there’s a reason.
“Although it does seem like we make the game hard sometimes, I do think that we don’t really press in tough situations. We find a way to just relax and when it does get tough, we pull it off. I don’t think we stress too much like, winning on a Hail Mary, I don’t think I saw a guy doubting that we were going to win that game,” he said.
“A lot of that comes off the field and trusting each other, loving each other, and realizing there’s a bigger goal ... and winning that game with some determination.”
For the fourth straight season, Idaho State is at the end of Weber State’s schedule as the final opponent standing between the Wildcats and a Big Sky title. While ISU’s 2-3 record is as competitive as it gets this spring, three losses is too many for the Bengals to be playing for a postseason spot.
WSU is on a six-game winning streak in this series, which stands at 45-15 all-time. In Ogden, WSU is 23-5 with 17 consecutive victories.
ODDS & PREDICTIONS
For entertainment purposes only, betting odds list Weber State as a 9.5-point favorite with an over/under of 51.5. That suggests a WSU win of about 30-21.