SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s most exciting game isn’t between the first schools to come to mind. This year, Utahns will have their eyes on the second round of the FCS playoffs when Southern Utah hosts in-state rival Weber State. And if the first meeting between the two schools is any indication, it will be a game for the ages in Utah.
Both SUU and Weber State shared the Big Sky Conference title this year for the first time. The Thunderbirds came out on top in the first game handily, with a 32-16 win in Ogden. During the game, Wildcats senior quarterback Steven Cantwell left the game with a concussion that all but sealed their fate.
The Thunderbirds finished the year with a victory over Northern Arizona, which earned them the eighth seed in the playoffs. The eighth seed brought SUU a much-earned first-round bye.
SUU is led by head coach Demario Warren, who last week took home the Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year Award. Warren is only in his second year with the Thunderbirds and has led them to back-to-back nine-win seasons. Warren has a record of 15-7 for his career.
Weber State's road to the second round of the playoffs was more difficult. The Wildcats won their third FCS playoff game in school history on Saturday when they prevailed over Western Illinois 21-19. Weber State's defense recorded four sacks and one interception in the win.
The Wildcats have been playing efficient football all year, ranking them as high as eighth in the nation at one point.
Weber State senior cornerback Taron Johnson led the Wildcat defense in Saturday's win, recording nine tackles in the game against Western Illinois. Johnson’s play this year has brought him national acclaim, rewarding him with a trip to the 2018 Reese’s Senior Bowl on Saturday, Jan. 27. Johnson is one of nine FCS players invited to the game.
Johnson is only the fourth Wildcat accepted to the game, after Lee White (1968), Anthony Parker (1999) and Scott Shields (1999). He was also named the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year.
Undoubtedly, the biggest factor in the game will be Wildcat quarterback Cantwell. The senior is crucial to Weber State's offense, and without him in the game, the Thunderbirds took advantage last time.
The Wildcats' offense was only able to put together 250 yards of total offense for the game, while the Thunderbirds had 487. Cantwell contributed 113 yards of offense before he left the game early in the second quarter.
If the Wildcats hope to change the outcome from earlier this year, they will need Cantwell to be the offensive powerhouse he has been all year. He will likely have his work cut out for him with a Thunderbird team that has had an extra week to rest and prepare.
The rematch of the Battle of the Beehive Bowl will take place Saturday, Dec. 2, at 6 p.m. at the Eccles Coliseum in Cedar City. The game will also be televised on ESPN3.
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