It’s exciting. For us, for the fans and for the program. To have that playoff game here is big, and if we take care of business (the games) will only get bigger after that. —Jay Hill
This year's Weber State Wildcats have been all about making their mark in school history. First was the 76-0 beatdown of Montana Western in the season opener, a game in which Wildcat records were broken in bunches.
After that, all Weber State did was take the California Golden Bears down to the wire in Berkeley (Weber actually led that game heading into and during the fourth quarter).
Each and every week this season, aside from their injury-plagued loss to Southern Utah, the Wildcats have squashed trends, broken records and established themselves as one of the elite programs in the Big Sky Conference.
It culminated in the Wildcats' 35-7 season-finale victory over Idaho State, a result which earned Weber State a share of the conference championship, the football program’s first since 2008.
“I’m proud of these guys,” Weber State head coach Jay Hill said. “This is what we came here to do. It has been a fun journey to watch us get better and better each year and ultimately win the Big Sky championship.”
In addition to the conference championship, the Wildcats also earned an at-large berth in the FCS Playoffs, their second postseason appearance in as many years.
Of course these Wildcats weren’t satisfied with just making the playoffs, so they secured a first-round home playoff game, the first for the school.
“It’s exciting,” said Hill. “For us, for the fans and for the program. To have that playoff game here is big, and if we take care of business (the games) will only get bigger after that.”
Before those bigger games, likely to be played against Southern Utah and the defending FCS champion James Madison Dukes, however, the Wildcats must get past the Western Illinois Leathernecks Saturday afternoon.
“They are a really good team,” said Hill. “They finished fourth in the Missouri Valley Conference."
(The MVC is widely regarded as the finest conference at the FCS level. The conference has seven teams ranked in the top 30, all of which have combined for 18 top-30 victories this season. The Big Sky is the closest conference in top-30 wins, with just seven.)
“They have beaten some really good teams this year,” added Hill. “Their only losses are to some of the elite teams in the country.”
Leading the way for the Leathernecks and their head coach, Charlie Fisher, who was finalist for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year award, has been quarterback Sean McGuire.
The junior signal-caller has thrown for 2,650 yards and 24 touchdowns this season. In his career in Macomb, McGuire has thrown for almost 7,000 yards, making him one of the most prolific passers in Leatherneck history.
His preferred target all year has been wide receiver Jaelon Acklin, who has racked up over 1,000 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns.
Western Illinois also boasts two running backs (Max Norris and Steve McShane) who have combined for over 1,000 yards rushing and 12 scores.
On defense, the Leathernecks have proven to be one of the best in the nation, especially on third down, thanks to middle linebacker Brett Taylor.
Taylor leads the country in both tackles per game and total tackles, with 13.6 and 150 respectively.
Under Fisher’s direction, the Leathernecks won eight games for the first time since 2003 and secured their second playoff berth in three seasons.
Western Illinois also proved to be road warriors, winning six away games for the first time ever. Those victories helped the Leathernecks improve to 10-3 on the road during Fisher’s tenure, all of which makes them a significant threat to the Wildcats.
“This is a great team,” said Hill. “It’ll be a heck of a game. We are super excited.”
WSU on the air
No. 9/10 Western Illinois (8-3) at No. 8/11 Weber State (9-2)
Saturday, 2 p.m. MDT
Stewart Stadium, Ogden
Radio: KLO 1430 AM