OGDEN, Utah – Is this November, or April?
Something that has become a tradition on the Saturday before Thanksgiving is a Weber State football victory over Idaho State that clinches a Big Sky Conference championship. In the last three seasons, the ‘Cats defeated the Bengals in the regular-season finale to clinch a share of the conference title.
In this abbreviated spring season that is serving as a makeup for the postponement of the 2020 fall season due to the pandemic, the Wildcats won their first four games of what was originally scheduled to be a six-game slate, but then cut to five after their final opponent, Cal Poly, backed out of the season midway through.
With the first outright Big Sky title in program history on the line, Weber State took a similar approach as they have this spring. It was never easy. The ‘Cats had to seemingly grind out every single play until the end, but a late drive led by quarterback Bronson Barron followed by a signature defensive stand was enough to do the trick Saturday.
Weber State survived with a 20-15 victory, the fourth straight game they have won by five or fewer points. The Wildcats have now won 11 consecutive home contests dating back to 2019, and have now won 31 of 35 games in the friendly confines of Stewart Stadium going all the way back to the 2014 home finale at the end of Jay Hill’s first year as head coach.
Offensive miscues have plagued Weber at times throughout the spring season and it was evident from the beginning that Saturday would be another tough slog. Star running back and former Big Sky Freshman of the Year Josh Davis being sidelined due to a sprained ankle didn’t exactly help matters either.
After the Wildcats went quietly on their first drive, Bengals quarterback Tyler Vander Waal led his team down the field well into WSU territory. However, the ‘Cats were able to come up with one of their specialties, a clutch play from the special teams unit. Doug Schiess got his hand on a 46-yard field goal attempt by ISU’s Kevin Ryan to keep the game scoreless.
Towards the end of the first quarter, Weber State moved the ball into the end zone but saw a golden opportunity fritter away when Justin Malone fumbled at the end of a 14-yard reception that would have given the home team the ball at the Idaho State 11-yard line. The Wildcats defensive front made sure not to let the Bengals convert the turnover into points, as ISU’s drive stalled near midfield and they were forced to punt.
The ‘Cats experienced a taste of Groundhog Day on their first play from scrimmage after regaining possession. Randall Johnson entered at quarterback and coughed up the ball on a keeper run, giving Idaho State a 21-yard field. After a short rush, WSU pressured Vander Waal into consecutive incompletions and the Bengals settled for a 3-0 lead when Ryan converted a 35-yard kick. Weber State turned the ball over on consecutive offensive snaps yet allowed a grand total of three points in the sequence when the damage could have been much more punishing.
With Bronson Barron back under center, the ensuing drive showed signs of optimism when an ISU pass interference penalty and a 20-yard run by Dontae McMillan put the ‘Cats at the Bengals 33. This threat quickly fizzled too, though, as an illegal block set Weber back and Barron was eventually sacked on 4th and 11.
Later in the second, the Wildcats got the ball back and Ty MacPherson came up with the signature offensive play of the afternoon. Barron fired a ball down the right sideline where MacPherson somehow made the catch in a major battle with the defensive back, then dragged the play another eight yards, all the way to the 1-yard line. McMillan made sure MacPherson’s outstanding effort would not go to waste as he punched in the first score of the day for WSU as they vaulted to a 7-3 advantage.
Weber State had another excellent chance that did not come to fruition right before halftime. Rashid Shaheed returned a punt to midfield, then Barron completed passes of 14 and 22 yards to Malone and MacPherson, respectively. With the clock winding down and the ‘Cats at the 6-yard line, Barron rushed for a loss on a zone read, then Rob Phenicie used one of the oldest coaching tactics in the book to keep it 7-3 heading into the half. Kyle Thompson lined up for a 29-yard field goal and drilled it, but Bengals head coach Phenicie called a timeout to ice the kicker. Thompson then missed wide left to conclude the half.
A key moment in the game occurred early in the third quarter. Vander Waal hooked up with Nate Shubert for a 30-yard completion on fourth down to help get the Bengals into the red zone. After another first down put ISU at the 9, Vander Waal was rocked on a quarterback hurry by Conner Mortensen, leading to the Bengals signal caller limping off the field in serious discomfort. Idaho State inserted freshman Sagan Gronauer and they ended up with a field goal, cutting the deficit to 7-6.
The ‘Cats were driving as the fourth quarter got underway, and McMillan converted a short run on 4th and 1 to keep the momentum going. On the very next play, Barron connected with Malone over the top for a 35-yard touchdown, as the tight end was able to atone for his earlier fumble. Thompson’s extra point increased the lead to 14-6 with 14:23 remaining.
Perhaps the most unexpected moment of the afternoon took place after Idaho State got the ball back. With the Bengals nearing midfield, Vander Waal re-entered the game despite appearing to be in excruciating pain on the sideline. He immediately completed passes of 19, 26 and 10 yards – the latter two reaching the hands of Chris Fredrickson, as his 10-yard touchdown brought the Bengals within 14-12. Phenicie opted to go for two, but Vander Waal was hit early and his pass attempt sailed incomplete through the back of the end zone.
McMillan gained 17 yards on the first play of the Wildcats’ next sequence, but they failed to capitalize any further, punting the ball back with 8:25 left. In a matter of moments, ISU Wide Receiver Tanner Conner experienced a couple of the major highs and lows in football.
Vander Waal connected with Conner on a 55-yard pass, putting the Bengals inside the Weber State 15-yard line. ISU Running Back Malakai Rango rushed for 11 yards two plays later to give ISU goal-to-go, but a key drop by Conner in the end zone on fourth down forced a field goal attempt. Ryan made the kick to give Idaho State a 15-14 lead, but they were left pondering what could have been.
The Wildcats started their eventual game-winning drive with just over five minutes remaining. A pass interference call against the Bengals helped kickstart the rally. McMillan then rushed to midfield before a pair of clutch catches by MacPherson got WSU all the way to the 6-yard line. Barron handed the ball to Daniel Wright Jr., who aggressively darted towards the end zone and rammed the ball into the pylon for the go-ahead score. The play was reviewed and stood. Weber State had a 20-15 lead but the two-point attempt to David Ames was just short of the goal line, meaning the Bengals could still go down and win the game with a touchdown.
The ‘Cats were going to have none of the final-second drama this time. On the fourth play of the drive, Marque Collins picked off Vander Waal near the sideline with just over a minute left. Weber State was able to run out the clock and secure a 20-15 victory, the second time they have knocked off the Bengals this spring season after a dominating 49-21 win on Feb. 27.
After the game, WSU Head Coach Jay Hill shared some of the strategy that kept Vander Waal, the second-leading passer in the Big Sky Conference, below his 315 yards per game average at just 268 yards, “Our whole mindset was don’t let ‘em get the run game going. If we can force them to be one-dimensional, get ‘em in to a bunch of third and longs, then we’ve got a chance.”
Weber State will now wait to find out the date and location of their next game. Next week’s scheduled game at Cal Poly was canceled when the Mustangs opted out of the remainder of the spring, so WSU will sit out next week, ahead of Selection Sunday on April 18. The FCS playoff format is slated to be a 16-team field in this abbreviated schedule, with the top eight teams receiving seeds and first-round byes.