FOOTBALL: 'Cats Grind Out 18-13 Victory Over Scrappy Aggies
(Photo courtesy of Weber State Athletics)
By Joe Traub
Ahh, momentum. There’s nothing like it in sports.
The UC Davis Aggies were experiencing, likely to the surprise of many, an enjoyable Saturday afternoon at Stewart Stadium in Ogden. 23rd-ranked UC Davis led No. 2 Weber State 10-0 early in the third quarter, thanks to a dominant first half defensive effort.
The Wildcats were flustered in the opening 30 minutes. Strong passes from the right arm of freshman quarterback Bronson Barron were dropped, while he was unable to deliver accurate throws at other times. Rushing attempts were quickly snuffed out by the Aggies’ line, and Weber State was held scoreless in the opening half at home for the first time since Oct. 8, 2016 against Portland State.
Then, there was a sudden shift on this chilly day that felt very similar to October or November, the time of year FCS football is normally played when the world is normal.
As has happened on countless occasions throughout this remarkable rise of the Wildcats football program during the Jay Hill era, halftime adjustments were made. Weber State’s offensive unit came out playing like a different group in the third quarter and the defense came up with their typical late-game theatrics in the fourth, as the ‘Cats rallied past UC Davis for an 18-13 victory in the first game played at Stewart Stadium in exactly 15 months.
The Wildcats received the ball to start the second half, and it appeared a quick three-and-out drive was possibly on the horizon after they gained just nine total yards on the first three plays. Then came one crucial play call that would change the complexion of the game.
Hill and offensive coordinator Matt Hammer elected to keep the offense on the field, and Barron made the decision pay off with a six-yard scamper for a first down. As the momentum was slowly starting to shift, Weber State simply chipped away at the heels of the Aggies for the rest of the drive in lieu of opting for an immediate lightning strike.
Barron connected with junior wide receiver Ty MacPherson for 11 yards on a key third down to move the Wildcats into UC Davis territory, then the offense continued to use efficiency to their benefit. The quarterback ran the ball two more times in the series, sandwiched around a trio of completions - two to David Ames and one secured by Justin Malone. All of a sudden, Weber State was at the 8-yard line and somewhat of an unusual sight followed.
Aggies head coach Dan Hawkins opted to hit the pause button and called a timeout to try and slow Weber’s momentum, a scene reminiscent of a timeout in basketball when the opposition is on a 12-0 run. A visibly fired-up Barron urged the crowd to keep making noise while the UC Davis defensive unit attempted to take a breather both figuratively and literally, as the squad from Northern California was playing their first game in a high-elevation city in well over a year.
Brief pause in the action? No problem for Dontae McMillan, who reached the end zone after the break on a two-yard sweep run, already the third rushing touchdown of the season for the freshman.
If Wildcat fans needed any confirmation that nature is indeed healing and life is slowly working its way back to normal, the next play provided a sense of security.
In previous seasons, it has become commonplace for Weber State to line up in an unorthodox method for an extra point and eventually go for two points. That is exactly what happened in this instance, as Haze Hadley took a direct snap and found Logan Snyder, who calmly made the catch in the end zone to make it a 10-8 ballgame.
UC Davis got the ball back and crossed midfield, but any thoughts they had of extending the lead were quickly wiped out. Keeping the ball for a third consecutive play, Aggies quarterback Hunter Rodrigues was wrapped up and taken to the ground by Preston Smith on fourth-and-2, giving Weber State the ball at their own 45-yard line.
Field position is key on a day where the temperature is in the mid 40s with on and off precipitation, and the Wildcats took full advantage of the short field. Rather than pecking away as they did on the previous drive, the ‘Cats went for it all right away. Barron again found MacPherson - this time for a 35-yard gain, the longest play of the game for Weber State. Daniel Wright Jr. then sprinted into the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown on the following snap to give Weber State their first lead of the day. Following the extra point, the Wildcats were in front 15-10 and the near-capacity crowd of 4,322 (limited to 5,000 maximum attendees) remained in a frenzy.
After a three-and-out by the Aggies, it appeared more electricity from the Weber State offense was in store after Rashid Shaheed smoothly maneuvered his way to the Wildcats’ 44 on a 32-yard punt return. However, the UC Davis front stood tall, eventually ending the threat by forcing Barron into an incompletion on fourth down from the Aggies’ 35.
As the fourth quarter got underway, UC Davis had an explosive gain of their own as Lan Larison ran for 36 yards to reach the red zone. With the crowd still roaring, the Aggies were not ready for the next play and a delay of game penalty was called. The ‘Cats were able to keep the damage to a 38-yard field goal and still had a 15-13 lead.
The home team went quietly on their ensuing drive, but junior punter Mackenzie Morgan delivered an exceptional boot, 49 yards through the air to pin the Aggies at their own 9-yard line. Three plays later, Rodrigues looked for an open receiver on the sideline. He found someone, but it was Eddie Heckard. The standout cornerback for the Wildcats read the route and stepped in front of Carson Crawford while snagging the ball for the first turnover of the day.
Weber State was able to turn the UC Davis miscue into points as Kyle Thompson connected on his first field goal as a Wildcat, making good on a 41-yard kick after missing his lone attempt in a 49-21 win at Idaho State in the season opener.
The Aggies regained possession with 8:19 left in the game, trailing 18-13. An offensive pass interference call backed the visitors up all the way to their own 20, where they faced a 3rd-and-28 situation. The numbers 28 and 3 are sometimes ominous in the game of football, but Preston Smith assured nothing wacky would happen against his team on this play. He picked off a pass from Rodrigues at the WSU 40, marking the sixth overall turnover the senior safety has either picked off or recovered during his career.
Although the Wildcats only moved the ball 19 yards after getting the ball back, they were able to take over three minutes off the clock, and Morgan pinned UC Davis at their own 4 with 1:44 left.
The Aggies were able to gain a few small chunk plays, but the inevitable outcome came to fruition when Raoul Johnson and Maxwell Anderson combined on the game-ending tackle of Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. 10 yards short of midfield after a screen pass.
Weber State celebrated near midfield and the victory bell was rung once again, a true sign that football is back in Ogden. The Wildcats are now 29-4 at Stewart Stadium dating back to the final home game of the 2014 season, and have won 18 of their last 19 home games, including a 17-game streak on Saturdays.
The victory marked the seventh time since 2018 that the ‘Cats were either tied or trailing at halftime of a home game and ended up coming back to win, with the other most notable occurrences coming in playoff victories over Kennesaw State and Montana last season, along with a memorable come-from-behind win against Montana State in 2018 after losing quarterback Kaden Jenks to a gruesome leg injury in the second quarter.
With new FCS rankings set to be released on Monday morning, the Wildcats will wait to see if they remain second in the nation before they embark on their next task. As was the case following their last game, Weber State has an upcoming bye week and won’t see the field again until March 27.
On paper, it might appear that Northern Arizona will be a pushover opponent while facing the ‘Cats, but the overall series has produced many surprises. Even as Wildcat football was rising to prominence, the Lumberjacks had their way with them, winning four straight meetings from 2014 to 2018, before Josh Davis decided he had enough of the losing streak. The last time these two teams squared off was Oct. 19, 2019 at Stewart Stadium and Davis set a school record with 328 rushing yards in a 51-28 victory for Weber State.
Normally when the Wildcats lose to their longtime nemesis, the Montana Grizzlies, in the Big Sky basketball Tournament, that could mean a long, dreary month of March for Weber State fans. However, in this highly unusual year, football is being played in the spring at Stewart Stadium for the first time ever. Fans took full advantage to come out and watch their beloved squad pull out a gritty win, as the victory bell was finally rung again after a long 456 days.