Proud of our guys. They fought, they clawed, they dug. —Weber State coach Jay Hill
CEDAR CITY — For the past two weeks, Southern Utah and Weber State fans have flocked to social media and comment boards to declare their team's superiority after the two programs tied for this year's Big Sky championship.
"Second place," SUU fans chanted moments before the T-Birds and Wildcats played a second-round FCS playoff game Saturday night at Eccles Coliseum, in reference to Southern Utah winning the two teams' regular-season meeting.
"You're so quiet," Weber State fans chanted in the third quarter, as Weber State added another score.
By the end of the night, there was a clear winner on the postseason field: Weber State.
The Wildcats scored 30 of the playoff game's final 33 points en route to a convincing 30-13 victory over the T-Birds on Saturday night at Eccles Coliseum.
With the victory, Weber State (11-2) moves on to face No. 1 James Madison on Friday, Dec. 8 at 5 p.m. MST in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs.
Weber State Wildcats head coach Jay Hill hugs his wife Sara as his daughter Ashtyn cheers after the Wildcats defeated the Southern Utah Thunderbirds in NCAA football in Cedar City on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017. | Ravell Call, Deseret News
"Proud of our guys. They fought, they clawed, they dug," Weber State coach Jay Hill said. "It wasn't always pretty and we left some plays out there, but when you're playing a kind of team that we were tonight, you're going to leave some stuff out there. I'm super excited about our play and how they handled this game."
Wildcats quarterback Stefan Cantwell and a stifling Weber State defensive effort spurred the dominant effort, as the Wildcats scored on five out of six possessions spanning from the second to third quarters to take control.
Cantwell completed 21 of 33 passes for 299 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 105 yards and another score, while the Wildcats held Southern Utah to 219 yards of total offense, including 74 yards over the final three quarters. Weber State had six sacks on the night.
"That was just game planning, I feel like," said Weber State defensive lineman Cardon Malan about the Wildcats' sacks, which totaled a loss of 46 yards. Malan had three of those sacks. "A few of the sacks I had on (SUU quarterback Patrick Tyler) were slant calls I got from the linebacker, getting untouched."
Southern Utah (9-3) struck early, scoring on its first two drives and building a double-digit lead. Running back Jay Green Jr. capped a 12-play, 75-yard drive with a 16-yard touchdown run on a fourth-and-2 play to end the game's first drive, and Manny Berz connected on a 37-yard field goal to make it a 10-0 lead with 2:18 left in the first quarter.
Weber State, though, didn't let the deficit — and playing on the road in front of a record 11,811 fans — slow down a wave that quickly came crashing down on the T-Birds, as the Wildcats forced SUU into three straight three-and-outs after their first two drives.
The Wildcats scored the game's next 13 points, all in the second quarter. The scores included a 20-yard touchdown catch by Drew Batchelor and Trey Tuttle field goals from 38 and 19 yards to take a 13-10 lead with 1:56 until halftime.
"They're a great offense, (and) we started out flat. But once we got that first three-and-out, we gained confidence," Malan said.
The T-Birds made it a tie game heading into the halftime, scoring on a Berz 24-yard field goal with eight seconds until the break after Chance Bearnson intercepted a Cantwell pass at the Weber State 37 and returned it 24 yards to the Wildcats' 13-yard line.
Weber State, though, recaptured control of the game in the third quarter, taking its first two second-half possessions for touchdowns. The Wildcats marched 81 yards in seven plays, including a 17-yard Kevin Smith run on a third-and-2 play, before a Cantwell 5-yard run and the ensuing PAT made it 20-13.
After SUU's next drive went just 9 yards, the Wildcats again moved fast, scoring on a 10-yard Andrew Vollert pass from Cantwell, making it 27-13 with 6:55 left in the third quarter. This drive covered 66 yards in seven plays in 2:31.
Southern Utah crossed the 50-yard line just once in the second half, and the Wildcats added a 24-yard Tuttle field goal with 8:16 to play to end the scoring.
Weber State allowed SUU just one first down in the momentum-changing second quarter and four in the second half, while Southern Utah was just 5 of 18 on third downs and had minus-1 yard in the third quarter.
"We didn't click," said Tyler, who completed 16 of 31 passes for 129 yards while the T-Bird rushing attack totaled just 90 yards on 33 carries.
Weber State Wildcats celebrate after the Wildcats defeat the Southern Utah Thunderbirds in NCAA football in Cedar City on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017. | Ravell Call, Deseret News
Weber State could have added a pair of other scores, though it turned the ball over inside the SUU 5 to start the second quarter and was stopped on a fourth and goal in the third when the snap went over Cantwell's head.
Still, even with a few flaws, the Wildcats easily walked away victorious and onto a matchup with the nation's top-ranked FCS team.
"This means we get a really good opponent this week," Hill said. "Again, this is another opponent I shouldn't have to do one thing to motivate these players to go play."