HARRISONBURG, Va. — Just a few hours from the nation’s capitol, Weber State football had already made program history.
The next step was so very close, too.
Ethan Ratke nailed a 46-yard field goal as time expired to help defending national champion James Madison survive the visiting Wildcats, 31-28 in a Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinal Friday night in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
"I’m super happy with the way the guys fought in that game," a hoarse-stricken coach Jay Hill said after the game. "They battled, they clawed, and in the end, we came up just a little bit short.
"That’s one heck of a team we just played. JMU is an outstanding football team. They showed the heart of a champion tonight."
The trip was Weber State’s first-ever visit to James Madison, its first FCS quarterfinal in the modern era, and second against a member of the Colonial Athletic Association.
Marcus Marshall piled up 128 yards and two touchdowns on the ground for the top-ranked Dukes (13-0), who out-gained Weber State 284 yards to 40 in the first half but led just 10-7 at the break. Riley Stapleton caught eight passes for 189 yards and a score for James Madison.
Kevin Smith ran for 45 yards and a score, and added an 81-yard receiving touchdown, to lead Weber State (11-3).
Former Bingham High quarterback Stefan Cantwell threw for 238 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, and also scored on a 1-yard TD run in the second half for the Wildcats.
The former Bingham High and Snow College signal caller threw up a 36-yard heave into the end zone to former Dixie High standout Drew Batchelor gave Weber State a 28-20 with 3:14 left in the game, but the Dukes tied the game on Trai Sharp’s two-point conversion run just over a minute later.
The defending national champion Dukes entered the game with a 24-game win streak, but clung to its defensive identity. JMU ranked first in the Football Championship Subdivision by allowing just 8.8 points per game, and the Dukes had yet to give up two touchdowns in a single game.
The Wildcats doubled the Dukes’ previous season high in touchdowns allowed, but also gave up 549 yards of offense to the top-rated team in the playoffs.
Weber State had just 329 yards of offense, including 91 yards on the ground. Cantwell accounted for a team-high 47 rushing yards for the Wildcats.
In a game that featured two of the top defenses in the FCS, the Wildcats made the first stop. Senior cornerback Xequille Harry’s interception just four plays into the game set up Smith's 1-yard touchdown plunge that gave Weber State a 7-0 advantage with only four yards of offense.
The senior from Woods Cross returned the ball to the 4-yard line, and Smith punched it in two plays later to stun the 13,497 fans in attendance for a Friday night game broadcast on ESPN2.
Still, the lead only lasted 2:01, and Weber State didn’t regain the advantage until Cantwell’s scoring run with 10 minutes left in the third quarter that put the Wildcats up 21-17.
Harry also picked up a blocked field goal on the final play of the first half, but his scoop-and-score touchdown was called back for defensive holding. Instead of a 14-10 halftime lead, the Wildcats took a 10-7 deficit into the locker room, and Harry eventually finished with three tackles, two pass breakups and an interception.
Syracuse High grad Cardon Malan led Weber State with nine tackles, including three tackles for loss, and Springville High alum Adam Rodriguez added eight tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss for a Wildcat squad that set a program record with 11 wins.
The Wildcats advanced to the school’s first-ever quarterfinal with a 30-13 win at rival Southern Utah a week ago, turning a program that went 2-10 in head coach Jay Hill’s inaugural season into an 11-win power and Big Sky Conference regular-season co-championship.
After signing a contract extension in January, Hill added two years to his guaranteed deal that would keep him in Ogden through the 2023 season.
Friday night's game is an achievement — but also something to build on — for Hill's program.
"I’m so proud of our players and what this season was," Hill said. "It hurts to lose like that; it hurts."
James Madison advances to the FCS national semifinals, where it will face the winner of No. 5 South Dakota State (10-2) and New Hampshire. The Jackrabbits and Wildcats (9-4) play at 1 p.m. MT Saturday on ESPN3.