I am super happy with how the guys fought and battled. They battled, clawed. In the end we came up a little bit short. That is one heck of a team we played. —Weber State head coach Jay Hill
HARRISONBURG, Va. — Weber State head coach Jay Hill sat at a table at a postgame press conference, with senior quarterback Stefan Cantwell immediately to his right and senior cornerback Xequille Harry to his left.
Hill flashed a smile to both players and congratulated them on their stellar careers, rubbing the dark, black hair of Bingham High grad Cantwell. But neither player, while appreciative of the gesture by Hill, could manage a smile in return.
And for good reason as the Wildcats came within 3:14 of pulling off the upset of defending national champion James Madison, which has been the No. 1-ranked FCS team all season, in the FCS quarterfinals.
After taking a 28-20 lead with 3:14 left, Weber State allowed the Dukes to score a touchdown with 2:08 to play and convert a two-point conversion to tie the game.
Then kicker Ethan Ratke drilled a career-high 46-yard field goal as time expired to give the Dukes a 31-28 victory on a chilly Friday night before 13,497 fans and a national ESPN2 television audience.
“It was very frustrating,” said Cantwell, accepting well wishes from JMU head coach Mike Houston in a press box hallway. “Don’t get me wrong — (JMU) played really great. At halftime we were able to kind of recuperate. It is just sad to see, with the group we do have, to see the season end like that. It just leaves a sour taste in your mouth.”
The Big Sky Conference Wildcats, with just 40 total yards in the first half but 329 overall, end the year 11-3 and failed to advance to the semifinals for the first time in school history.
“I am super happy with how the guys fought and battled,” Hill said. “They battled, clawed. In the end we came up a little bit short. That is one heck of a team we played. They showed the heart of a champion tonight, obviously. They just kept hanging in there. We dropped two interceptions that could have ended the game.”
The Dukes (13-0) won the national title last year and have won 25 games in a row. JMU will play at home next weekend against either South Dakota State or New Hampshire, who play Saturday.
The Wildcats scored on a 36-yard pass from Cantwell to Drew Batchelor with 3:14 left to give Weber State a 28-20 lead. Riley Stapleton of JMU caught a 40-yard touchdown pass with 2:08 left from Bryan Schor to make it 28-26 and a two-point conversion run by Trai Sharp tied the game at 28.
“We left a lot of things on the field,” Cantwell said. “We could have helped the defense a lot more.”
Weber State had also taken the lead when Kevin Smith went 81 yards on a catch and run from quarterback Cantwell to give the visitors from Utah a 14-10 lead with 7:13 left in the third quarter.
But JMU running back Marcus Marshall ran 20 yards for a touchdown with 12:11 left in the game as the Dukes took a 17-14 lead.
Weber State responded on its next possession to take a 21-17 lead with 10:01 left in the game as Cantwell ran over from the 1-yard line. JMU’s Ratke kicked a 40-yard field goal with 7:53 to go to trim the margin to 21-20.
Weber State also led in the first quarter as senior cornerback Xequille Harry came up with an interception on the first drive of the game for JMU. He returned the ball 40 yards to the JMU 4-yard line and two plays later running back Smith went over from the 1-yard line as the Wildcats took a 7-0 lead with 12:46 left in the first quarter.
“I just wanted to make plays to set our offense up,” Harry said.
But Marshall, a transfer from Georgia Tech, ran 43 yards on the next drive to give the Dukes a first down on the Weber State 26. Marshall, which gained 128 yards, then ran 15 yards for a score later in the drive as JMU tied the game at 7-7 with 10:38 left in the first quarter.
The Dukes took a 10-7 lead with 11:44 left in the second quarter on a 35-yard field goal by Ratke.
Cantwell completed just three of 13 passes in the first half but ended up 12 of 30 for 238 yards and two touchdowns. Weber State’s Andrew Vollert caught a team-high five catches while defensive end Cardon Malan had nine tackles, linebacker Adam Rodriguez had eight and defensive end Johan Williams had seven, though his penalty late in the first half negated a long return.
Smith of the Wildcats ran for 45 yards on 14 carries.
“I wish I could play with them forever,” sophomore Smith said. “This is more like a family than a team. We did everything together.”
JMU’s Schor, the preseason player of the year in the CAA, was 21 of 45 for 359 yards and one touchdown. He found teammate Riley Stapleton eight times for 189 yards, both career highs for the wideout.
“I felt like our defense let up a couple of times,” Hill said. “You have to give their offense a ton of credit. That is one good football team. I am so proud of what this season was.
"But it hurts."