OGDEN, Utah – They just ran out of miracles in the end.
Playing from ahead for a change, the Weber State University football team let an early two-touchdown advantage slip away, mistakes piled up, and the visiting Southern Illinois Salukis ended up with a dramatic 34-31 victory over the Wildcats on Saturday afternoon at Stewart Stadium in what was the opening game of the 2021 FCS spring playoffs.
The ‘Cats 11-game home winning streak is now in the rearview mirror, as their season has come to an end with a defeat at home in the postseason for the second time in three years. The Maine Black Bears had been the last visiting team to win at Stewart Stadium, back on December 7, 2018 when they upset Weber State in the FCS Quarterfinals.
The Salukis earned their first playoff victory since November 28, 2009, when they trounced Eastern Illinois 48-7 in what was previously the last postseason appearance for the Salukis.
Coming in, Weber State had won their last four games by a grand total of 18 points, including one of them coming on a miraculous Hail Mary and two others with the go-ahead score late in the fourth quarter.
Right out of the gate, Wildcat fans likely felt a sense of “not this again” in terms of the offensive struggles that have kept them from putting opponents to bed in the last four games.
Bronson Barron got the nod as the starting quarterback for the fifth time in six contests this spring and led Weber State into the red zone in the first two minutes, with the big play being a 41-yard completion to Ty MacPherson down the right sideline. Dontae McMillan then rushed for 15 yards to the Salukis 16-yard line, but Barron was pressured on the following play and floated a pass into the arms of James Ceasar in the end zone, the first career interception for the freshman quarterback.
The Wildcats defense forced a potent SIU offense into a quick three-and-out, and the home team took advantage of a quality drive this time. WSU moved the ball deep into Salukis territory courtesy of several chunk plays generated by Daniel Wright Jr., Rashid Shaeed, MacPherson, then seldom-used veteran quarterback Kylan Weisser was inserted and rushed for 12 yards to the SIU 4. Kris Jackson then carried the ball twice for two yards each, which was good for a touchdown to help give Weber State a 7-0 lead. It served as a warm welcome back for Jackson, who was making his season debut after suffering a hamstring injury during spring camp. The score also marked the first time the Wildcats have ever scored a first-quarter touchdown in a home playoff game, this being the sixth such occasion.
Southern Illinois got the ball back but it would be a brief stay for them on the field. Stone Labanowitz entered the game with a pass completion percentage of 83.3% and had been especially impressive in leading the Salukis to victory in their last two games, but Mitchel Maxfield was having none of it. The redshirt freshman linebacker for the Wildcats picked off a Labanowitz attempt at the 28 to quickly put an end to the Salukis second drive.
WSU head coach Jay Hill and offensive coordinator Matt Hammer dialed up some trickery, opting for a fake-reverse flea-flicker. MacPherson pitched the ball back to Barron, who found an incredibly wide open Justin Malone in the end zone for a 28-yard touchdown grab. Kyle Thompson calmly converted on the extra point to make it a 14-0 advantage just 9:05 into the game.
The Salukis had a quick answer as the Avante Cox show entered Stewart Stadium. The junior wide receiver had four touchdown catches in eight regular season games, and he single-handedly made this a one score game by hauling in four receptions for 81 yards on the drive. Cox capped the stretch with a 26-yard score as SIU pulled within 14-7 at the 2:56 mark of the third quarter.
Third-down conversions were key for Weber State after getting the ball back. They got past midfield on a 3rd and 6 on a pass to Shaheed to start the second quarter, then Barron and Wright hooked up on a 17-yard play action connection to put the ‘Cats at the 4 on another third-down play. Wright eventually capped the drive by punching it in from a yard out, and WSU soon had another 14-point advantage at 21-7.
A mental error cost the Wildcats on the ensuing series. Southern Illinois quickly moved the ball into Weber State territory, then Jayden Palauni was called for a late hit on Labanowitz to put the Salukis at the 13. This almost immediately came back to bite the ‘Cats as Romeir Elliott scampered into the end zone two plays later, and the lead was cut to 21-14.
McMillan raced his way to the SIU 40 on a 21-yard rush after Weber State got the ball back, but any momentum fizzled when Barron threw his second pick of the day as he was trying to find Shaheed in double coverage in the end zone.
As the game neared halftime, Southern Illinois threatened again with Labanowitz using his legs to wreak havoc. He kept the ball on consecutive plays totaling 18 yards and putting the Salukis at the Weber 32. Forced into a 3rd and 18 after a sack by Logan Lutui, Labanowitz found Branson Combs for a 19-yard completion at the 21. When the dust settled, Weber State’s defense stood tall and the Salukis received a 35-yard field goal by Nico Gualdoni on the first attempt of the day for either team. SIU pulled within 21-17 at halftime after it appeared the game was on the verge of getting away from them midway through the opening stanza.
Just as they did on SIU’s initial possession, the ‘Cats made a statement on the defensive side of the ball to begin the second half, forcing the Salukis into a three-and-out. Despite Barron having to come out for a few plays, Weber State continued to move the ball. Weisser came in for a brief moment and ran for a first down, McMillan gained 15 more yards, then Teryn Berry appeared under center and completed his first pass as a Wildcat, a nine-yard toss to tight end Logan Snyder.
Much to the delight of fans inside Stewart Stadium, Barron jogged back onto the field a couple plays later. However, a key drop by David Ames on a third down pass attempt brought Thompson onto the field for a 32-yard field goal try, and he pulled it wide left to keep the score 21-17.
The Salukis took full advantage of Weber’s mishaps in perhaps the most unexpected of ways. SIU marched down the field, led by a 35-yard strike from Labanowitz to Cox and were nearing the goal line when the Wildcats stopped them on three consecutive plays. It appeared that WSU would be able to hold on to their slim lead, but Salukis head coach Nick Hill pulled a page directly out of Jay Hill’s playbook.
Southern Illinois lined up for a 20-yard field goal, but Gualdoni instead received the snap and calmly tossed to a wide-open Cole Steward in the end zone and the Salukis had their first lead of the day. Still fresh off the adrenaline of the touchdown, Gualdoni converted the extra point, meaning he was at least partially responsible for all seven points on the drive.
After a quick Weber State possession, Mackenzie Morgan booted a seemingly mediocre punt, but it hit the turf and kept rolling all the way to the SIU 6. With the Salukis just trying to get out of the range of their own end zone, Elliott got the ball on a carry and Preston Smith forced his way in, jarring the ball loose. Jared Schiess was able to come up with the fumble recovery and Weber State had new life as the third quarter reached its conclusion. Despite a three-yard field, multiple plays went in the wrong direction for the offense, and all they could manage was a 28-yard field goal by Thompson to tie the contest at 24.
Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year Conner Mortensen and Maxfield came up with a tackle for loss and sack, respectively, on the next drive after SIU got all the way to Weber’s 20. Gualdoni continued to be a warrior for his team as he made a 44-yard field goal with 8:23 left, giving the Salukis a 27-24 lead.
The back-and-forth dramatics continued when Barron got the ball back in his hands, as he completed a 15-yard pass to Ames, getting the drive started on a positive note. Wright then came up with possibly the signature play of the afternoon, going “beast mode” for a 40-yard burst down the right side. After a pass to MacPherson put Weber State in the red zone, Weisser got them even closer by successfully converting a pair of “Wildcat” runs. Barron then came back on the field and fought his way into the end zone, and his four-yard touchdown run delivered Weber State a 31-27 advantage with 5:25 to play.
As they had done all day long, Southern Illinois rebounded when staring adversity directly in the face. Labanowitz got the ball back and immediately completed passes of 22 and 14 yards to Jerron Rollins, putting the Salukis at the WSU 41. A false start forced SIU into a 2nd and 15, and Labanowitz completed a short pass, but Ja’Kobe Harris was called for a crushing late hit penalty, putting the visitors at the 26.
As the clock approached two minutes remaining, Elliott sprinted for 12 yards to the 14-yard line. On the next play, Labanowitz’s pass to Izaiah Hartup went for a loss of two, then SIU was called for a personal foul to back them up to the 27.
Facing a 2nd and 25, Labanowitz somehow remained calm and fired a dart to Jerron Rollins, who made an acrobatic grab while leaping over a defender, making it a 3rd and much more manageable from the 8-yard line. The ensuing pass was incomplete, but Nick Hill called a timeout to help his team regroup.
On fourth down, Labanowitz had George Tarlas in his face, but managed to get a throw off, and Combs came down with the go-ahead touchdown as Southern Illinois took a 34-31 lead with 51 seconds remaining.
Weber State used a series of chunk plays to get to the SIU 37, but had to burn their final two timeouts in the process, due to the fact they worked directly up the middle instead of towards the sidelines. Barron was sacked on second down, Haze Hadley dropped a third down pass, and Barron was brought to the turf by Raquan Lindsey on fourth down as time expired, and the Salukis improbably handed the Wildcats their first home loss in 869 days.
The good news for Weber State? Due to the bizarre circumstances of essentially playing two seasons in one year, they take the field again in just over four months, for the 2021 season opener on Sept. 2 at the University of Utah. All seniors are expected to return to the team after maintaining eligibility due to the rule changes set in stone for this year by the NCAA.