That’s what football is. You want opportunities like this. —Weber State football coach Jay Hill
CEDAR CITY — Weber State set a school record Saturday night with its 11th win this season, a 30-13 victory over Southern Utah at Eccles Coliseum that moves the Wildcats on to the quarterfinals in the FCS playoffs.
Their reward? A matchup with top-ranked James Madison.
Weber State (11-2) will play the Dukes (12-0) on Friday, Dec. 8, at 5 p.m. MST in the FCS quarterfinals. The game will be televised nationally on ESPN2.
"You’re making history as you keep going on through the playoffs. Every game’s a big play," Wildcats quarterback Stefan Cantwell said.
While Weber State didn't leave the state of Utah during the first two rounds of the playoffs, heading to Harrisonburg, Virginia, to face James Madison will bring about a whole new challenge. The Dukes are the defending FCS national champions and are dominating opponents.
On Saturday, James Madison beat Stony Brook 26-7 to advance to the quarterfinals. The Dukes intercepted five passes and allowed the Seawolves only 94 yards of total offense in the first half while building a 19-0 lead at the break.
A stingy defense defines James Madison. The Dukes haven't allowed an opponent to score more than 14 points in a game this season, as opponents have averaged only 8.8 points per game. That number dips to 5.2 points per game allowed over the past five games.
Those numbers are following a similar pattern. In 2016, James Madison outscored its four playoff opponents 175-60 on its way to winning the national title.
James Madison is also second nationally this season in total defense (235.1 yards per game), fourth in team sacks (3.58) and sixth in third-down conversion defense (29.9 percent). The Dukes have intercepted a national best 24 passes in 2017 and have only allowed opponents to score five touchdowns in 16 red-zone trips.
"That’s what football is. You want opportunities like this," said Hill, whose team defeated Western Illinois in the first round in Ogden before beating SUU in the playoff's second round in southern Utah. "We wanted a really good opponent in the first round, we got it. We wanted an opportunity at Southern Utah, because we knew that’s who was waiting, we got it.
"Now, this is the next opponent. We're going to obviously play great against these guys, but if you’re a competitor, you want these types of games. I think our players will handle this great."
Early on, it appeared Southern Utah had the inside track to the matchup against James Madison, as the T-Birds took a 10-0 lead over Weber State on Saturday through one quarter. But behind Cantwell, who accounted for 404 yards of offense, and a strong defensive effort, the Wildcats rallied and then pulled away in the second half. The Weber State defense forced SUU into five three-and-outs and kept the T-Birds from gaining more than 10 yards on nine straight possessions.
Everything wasn't perfect for the Wildcats in their victory over SUU, though. Weber State turned the ball over three times and scored on just five of eight red-zone chances. Still, Weber State defeated Southern Utah in Cedar City for the second time in as many years and is the only team to go into Eccles Coliseum and win against the T-Birds in the past three seasons.
"Right now in a rivalry game, I don’t think home field advantage has that much of a say. You’ve got to go out and play every play, you’ve got to play hard. That’s what our guys did," Hill said.
This is the third time Weber State has reached the FCS quarterfinals, including 1987 (a 51-23 loss to Marshall) and 2008 (a 24-13 loss to Montana). This year is the first time, though, that the Wildcats have won multiple games in the playoffs, as Weber State is 4-5 all-time in six postseason appearances.
Perhaps the biggest number that defines James Madison right now is a 24-game winning streak spanning nearly two years. The Dukes won their final 12 games of the 2016 season en route to their national title and are perfect this season. James Madison was a consensus No. 1 in the final regular-season FCS polls.
"They’ve got a 24-game win streak and they’ve been the best team in the country for the last two years. We understand that. But the last 24 games don’t matter," said Hill, whose team comes into the contest with a seven-game winning streak of its own. "All that matters is this one coming up, and that’s how we’ll approach it. We’re going to go play it as hard as we can."
Cantwell, who is 10th nationally in passing efficiency (154.7), appreciates being a leader on a 2017 Wildcats team that is setting program bests.
"It’s fun to be a part of this team to have the unity that we have and just keep moving forward. It’s a great time to be a Weber State Wildcat," Cantwell said.