I can't say enough about (our) players and their toughness. —Weber State head coach Jay Hill
OGDEN — As far as Weber State head coach Jay Hill is concerned, this year's Wildcats are the greatest football team the city of Ogden has ever boasted, kind of.
“This is for sure, arguably, the best team in Weber State history,” said Hill.
Best or not, the Wildcats needed to be that and more Saturday afternoon at Stewart Stadium.
No. 11 Weber State hosted the No. 9 Western Illinois Leathernecks for a first-round FCS playoff game, the first home playoff game in Weber State history.
The Wildcats fell behind early to an opponent Hill called “one heck of a football team,” before rallying to defeat Western Illinois 21-19.
The Weber State defense led the way to victory, most notably a secondary headlined by defensive backs Jordan Preator and Taron Johnson, shutting down the potent Leatherneck passing attack and causing a pair of turnovers.
Timely plays on offense, courtesy of quarterback Stefan Cantwell and the skill players around him, such as tight end Andrew Vollert and wideout Drew Batchelor, certainly didn’t hurt the Wildcats' cause.
Cantwell finished the game 18 of 27 with 186 yards passing and three touchdowns, not to mention his team-high 43 yards on the ground. Vollert proved to be his top target, with eight catches for 112 yards and a score, while Batchelor added 52 yard receiving and two touchdowns.
Preator meanwhile racked up a Weber State best 11 tackles, while Johnson added nine.
Defensive back Xequille Harry and defensive linemen Cardon Malan and Filipe Sitake also proved essential in the win, combining to create both Leatherneck turnovers.
“I can’t say enough about (our) players and their toughness,” said Hill. “(Western Illinois) is one heck of a football team. We all knew it. They had the national recognition coming in and they deserved all of it.”
The Leathernecks certainly looked the part of contender at the outset. After coming up empty on their opening drive, despite a spectacular 38-yard one-handed reception by wide receiver Jaelon Acklin, the visitors quickly found their way onto the scoreboard with a 44-yard Sam Crosa field goal.
The Wildcats, meanwhile struggled through their opening two possessions, going three-and-out twice.
It wasn’t until the second quarter and their third possession of the game that the Wildcats began to find any purchase on the offensive side of the ball.
It was on that drive that Weber State recorded its first first down, on a Cantwell scramble. A few plays later, the senior quarterback connected with Batchelor for a Weber State touchdown on a 33-yard flea-flicker.
“We saw what we liked and we took a shot,” said Cantwell. “We always call shots on good plays and downs where there is a high likelihood that we are going to get it. We liked what we saw and executed.”
The Wildcats saw a few more plays they liked later on in the contest as Cantwell connected with Vollert for a 50-yard bomb (a completion that led to a 3-yard touchdown reception for Batchelor) and a 21-yard touchdown.
“I told the players we were going to be aggressive.” said Hill. “I told the coaches we were going to be aggressive.”
Some of that aggression backfired on the Wildcats, such as two failed fake punt attempts in their own territory, but each time the defense stood firm.
“The defense got out of some huge drives,” said Hill. “I was very proud of them and how they handled some of those fakes that we didn’t get. The turnovers were big. We also had some stops where we were able to maintain field position. Those were huge.”
Big plays aside, Western Illinois proved to be a difficult competitor, drawing as close as two points in the third quarter on a 7-yard touchdown run by Clint Ratkovich, and then again in the fourth quarter on a 13-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Sean McGuire to tight end Tyler Slamans.
It all proved for naught, however, as the Wildcats and Cantwell put together a final drive that ran out the clock.
“That was a tremendous football game,” Western Illinois head coach Charlie Fisher said. “Two really good teams went nose to nose for four quarters. A tip of the hat and congratulations to Weber State on the win.”
The victory secures the Wildcats a berth in the second round and a rematch with Southern Utah.
“We’ve wanted this,” said Hill. “We didn’t play very good last time we had an opportunity with (SUU) and there has been a lot of talk about co-championships and all that. This is a huge game. It’ll be big for us and it’ll be big for them.”