OGDEN — The Wildcats had a rare, turning-point type of victory over the University of Montana well within their grasp.
But, as has been the case so often in this frustrating Weber State football season, they let it slip away.
The Grizzlies, who have dominated this series by what's now a lopsided 39-13 margin over the years, staged a fourth-quarter comeback to turn back Weber State 24-21 on a downright perfect-for-football Saturday afternoon at Stewart Stadium.
Montana's one-two running back tandem of Peter Nguyen and Jordan Canada combined for nearly 200 yards rushing, and sophomore quarterback Shay Smithwick-Hann threw for 231 yards and a touchdown to give the Grizzlies (5-5, 3-4 Big Sky) a chance to avoid their first losing season since 1985.
Trailing 14-13 entering the final period, Montana scored a touchdown, then added a two-point conversion and a field goal in the first 11-plus minutes of the fourth quarter to seize a 24-14 lead.
Then, after the Wildcats' Cordero Dixon returned a kickoff 100 yards to pull Weber State within three points at 24-21, the Grizzlies took the ensuing kickoff and ground out all the remaining time off the clock, making sure the 'Cats never got the ball back with a chance to tie the game or possibly win it.
"I'm not a snakebit guy," WSU interim head coach Jody Sears said after his hard-luck Wildcat crew slipped to 1-8 on the season and 1-5 in the Big Sky. "Luck is what you create. You create your luck.
"I think they kinda wore us out a little bit; I think their size kinda got to us a little bit," Sears said of the Grizzlies. "That little running back (the 5-foot-9, 172-pound Canada) broke a couple of tackles on us. I think we might've gotten worn down. They're big.
"But I'm proud as daylights of 'em," coach Sears said of his players.
Weber State senior running back C.J. Tuckett ran for 69 yards and a touchdown, and junior linebacker Anthony Morales piled up a career-best 23 tackles, including eight solo stops and two for losses. But it wasn't quite enough to keep the 'Cats from losing to the Grizzlies for the 13th time in their last 15 meetings.
"It's always tough when you lose, but I know these seniors and myself, being a junior, we take Montana real seriously and it's always a big game on our schedule," Morales said. "... I never want to lose to Montana so it hurts right now, because we never want to lose to Montana. But it's about making plays when we needed to make 'em, and we didn't do that today.
"I thought we played real hard on defense. I told the guys in the locker room how proud I was of them, because it would've been real easy to fold our tent today and we kept fighting to the last play. A loss or not, I'm proud of our guys."
Morales lamented that, when the Wildcats absolutely needed to come up with a big play, they couldn't seem to do so on offense or defense.
"It was on both sides of the ball," he said. "When we needed a stop, we didn't get one, and when we needed a score, we didn't get one. That's kinda been the story of the season. We've been right there but haven't got it done. There were one or two series on both sides of the ball that we needed to step up and make a play and we didn't.
"We executed and did what we needed to do for three quarters — and couldn't get it done in the fourth."
After Montana took an early 3-0 lead, the Wildcats put together a 16-play, 80-yard drive capped by Tuckett's 1-yard touchdown plunge that staked Weber State to a 7-3 lead with 9:44 left in the second quarter.
The Grizzlies answered with a six-play, 80-yard drive of their own, with Canada's 4-yard scoring scamper putting Montana back on top 10-7, a score that held until halftime.
Montana drove deep into Weber territory early in the second half, but the Wildcats' Antwain Stutson came up with his first career interception to snuff the threat. Weber State's offense responded by going 66 yards in seven plays, and Kris Parham gave the Wildcats a 14-10 lead with a 1-yard TD run.
Then it was Montana's turn, and the Grizzlies drove all the way down inside the WSU 10 before settling for a 22-yard field goal by Chris Lider — who had missed two of his first three field-goal attempts — that cut the 'Cat lead to 14-13 late in the third period.
The Grizzlies grabbed the lead midway through the fourth quarter, going 80 yards in 14 plays and forging in front on Smithwick-Hann's 9-yard touchdown pass to wide-open receiver Bryce Carver. Smithwick-Hann then hit Sam Gratton on a two-point conversion pass to make it 21-14.
Then when WSU quarterback Mike Hoke had the ball poked loose from his hand, Montana recovered and capitalized on a critical 35-yard field goal by Lider to take a 10-point lead, 24-14, with 3:53 left to play.Comment on this story
That made it a two-score game, but Dixon gave the Wildcats new life when he took the ensuing kickoff from 3 yards deep in the end zone and went all the way up the sideline for a touchdown — the first kickoff return of his collegiate career, no less — trimming Montana's margin to 24-21 with 3:41 remaining in the game.
"Everybody just did their job, and we just won the play," said Dixon, a freshmen cornerback. "I was just hoping (the Montana kicker) didn't tackle like our kicker."
After Cordero's electrifying kickoff return, Weber State elected to kick it deep rather than attempt an onside kick. But the Grizzlies picked up a couple of first downs to force WSU to burn all of its timeouts, then ran out the remainder of the clock to preserve the victory.