OGDEN — If you had told the Weber State Wildcats before the 2009 season began that they would finish the year with a 7-5 record and lose in the first round of the FCS playoffs, they probably would have been disappointed.
But their reaction may have been a little different had they known what kind of adversity they would have to deal with in 2009.
All football teams have to deal with injuries, but Weber State's season was severely hampered by them. The Wildcats lost one of their top weapons on offense, tight end Cody Nakamura, in their conference opener and it limited their firepower the rest of the season. Other key players such as center Kyle Mutcher, tackle Jared Wilcox and defensive lineman Ryan Eastman missed playing time because of injuries.
Running back Trevyn Smith also missed the team's win over Northern Colorado because he was suspended for a half, and wasn't used when he was available after halftime. The Wildcats also faced a daunting schedule, as they played back-to-back FBS opponents Wyoming and Colorado State to open the season, and then jumped right into conference play with a rivalry game against Idaho State.
Still, the Wildcats managed to take second place in the Big Sky and qualify for the FCS playoffs for the second straight year. It was the first time in school history Weber State reached the postseason in back-to-back years.
"I don't think that you're ever satisfied," said Weber State coach Ron McBride. "I'm happy with how the team handled adversity. They responded really well."
Some of the adversity the Wildcats faced was self-inflicted. They dropped winnable games at Colorado State and at home against Montana State. Weber State lost to Colorado State when it was in field goal range in the final minute before it lost a fumble on a botched snap exchange. The Wildcats lost to Montana State 26-21 after scoring just one touchdown in seven red-zone appearances.
"We're obviously disappointed because there were games we should have won," McBride said.
The Wildcats rebounded from those frustrating losses and were somewhat of a surprise entry into the FCS playoffs. Weber State was thought to be eliminated from postseason after suffering its fourth defeat of the season at Montana. The Wildcats finished the season strong, with a quality win over Northern Arizona in the snow and a blowout victory over Cal Poly. Weber State also got some help on the final day of the regular season, as teams on the playoff bubble such as Montana State, Liberty, Lafayette and Northern Iowa all lost.
The Wildcats were the only team to reach the FCS playoffs with four regular-season losses. Their season ended with a 38-0 loss to William & Mary in which it gained just 167 yards. It was the first time since the 2006 season that the Wildcats failed to score in a game, a streak that spanned 45 games. Weber State will say goodbye to a stellar group of seniors that helped to greatly improve the program. Smith was a three-time Big Sky rushing champion and gained more than 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons with the Wildcats. He is the school's all-time leader in rushing yards with 5,029 and the leader in all-purpose yards with 6,420. He scored a total of 52 touchdowns at Weber State.
Tim Toone leaves as the school's all-time leader in receiving yards (3,602) and receiving touchdowns (29). He tied Trevor Shaw for the all-time lead in receptions with 206. He led the FCS in punt returns with a 19.9 yards per return average.
The Wildcats had seven players named as first-team all-Big Sky players. They were Smith, Toone, Mutcher, defensive end Kevin Linehan, linebacker Taylor Sedillo, cornerback Josh Morris and punter Mike Snoy.
Weber State quarterback Cameron Higgins didn't play as well in his junior year as he did his sophomore season. He had two interceptions returned for touchdowns against William & Mary and threw 20 total picks during the 2009 season. He also threw for 3,321 yards and 30 touchdowns. Those numbers were down from last season when he threw for 4,477 yards and 36 touchdowns with just 13 interceptions.
"He didn't have the year he had previously," McBride said of Higgins. "Nakamura was his No. 1 target and that hurt him."
Higgins and the rest of the Wildcats made plenty of plays though in 2009, and reaching the playoffs for a second straight season was an excellent achievement.
Weber State's 2009 season at a glance
2009 record: 7-5 overall, 6-2 in Big Sky
2009 Preseason poll prediction/Actual finish: 2nd in coaches and media polls. Actual: 2nd
Offensive MVP: Tim Toone was productive at receiver and as a punt returner. He caught 83 passes for 1,109 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also led the FCS in punt returns with a 19.9 yards per return average. He returned two punts for touchdowns.
Defensive MVP: The Wildcats could count on senior cornerback Josh Morris to shut down one side of the field. Several teams hardly bothered throwing in Morris' direction.
Best win: Weber State rebounded from a disappointing loss to Montana State by hammering Eastern Washington. The Wildcats played their most complete game of the season in beating the Eagles, an eventual FCS playoff team, 31-13.
Worst loss: Weber State had no business losing to Montana State in a game it mostly dominated. The Wildcats scored one touchdown in seven trips in the red zone.
2010 Outlook: It could be a rebuilding season for the Wildcats, who will lose tons of talent on both sides of the ball. They'll break in a new backfield with Trevyn Smith graduating and Bo Bolen expected to leave on an LDS Church mission.
The Wildcats will probably have to rely on their defense, especially early in the season.