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'I love the challenge': Weber State hosts No. 2 James Madison in first home game of season

Weber State Wildcats wide receiver Rashid Shaheed (22) scores on a kickoff return during the season opener at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. Weber lead 7-3 at the lightning strike delay.

Weber State Wildcats wide receiver Rashid Shaheed (22) scores on a kickoff return during the season opener at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. Weber lead 7-3 at the lightning strike delay. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

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OGDEN — Only two times in program history has Weber State's paths crossed with James Madison; and two times James Madison has ended the Wildcats' FCS playoff run and season.

For the first time in the series matchup, the No. 2 Dukes will travel over 2,000 miles from Harrisonburg, Virginia, to Ogden and face the hungry No. 8 Wildcats in what will be the first home game for Weber State and the first top-10 FCS matchup of the season.

Although a preseason matchup between the two teams does not merit an advancement into the next playoff round or a championship game berth, the Wildcats are still left with a lasting, bitter memory of how the 2017 and 2019 seasons ended.

"I shouldn't have to say anything to get these guys excited about playing James Madison, just knowing how the first two games went against them," Weber State head coach Jay Hill said. "This is something our guys will take a lot of pride in, and hopefully they'll relish the opportunity and the matchup because we have tons of respect for this team."

In the teams' first meeting during the 2017 FCS playoffs, Weber State lost a 31-28 quarterfinal heartbreaker in a game that came down to the final minutes. The Wildcats led 28-20 with 3:14 to play, but in less than one minute, the No. 1 ranked James Madison scored a touchdown and tacked on additional points after a successful 2-point conversion.

After tying the game, the Dukes' defense forced the Wildcats to punt with a minute left — a minute that eventually shattered the Wildcats' hearts.

James Madison quickly advanced the ball into field goal range and landed a 46-yard attempt to win the game and end the Wildcats' playoff run in a season where they won the most games in school history (11).

A total of 12 Wildcat players on the current roster were involved in the quarterfinal loss and are looking forward to the opportunity to host the Dukes on their home turf in front of their home crowd, one of those being senior All-American and team captain Rashid Shaheed.

"We're really excited about that, to get them to travel here for once," he said.

"We have a lot of guys on this team still that have played in those last two games, and we just use that as kind of motivation to come into this game. … We just let kind of the younger guys know that might have not played them yet what it's going to be like and just to not let the situation or the moment be too big for them."

And what is the game going to be like?

Shaheed said they're expecting the "same explosive team" they've seen in the previous matchups. The championship culture and mindset at James Madison is still present: they play fast and they are physical.

The Dukes pose a list of problems for opponents to match on both offense and defense. In their first two games of the season, James Madison outscored their opponents 123-17 — good for second in the country in scoring offense and sixth in scoring defense; however, Hill believes that with his experienced and veteran team, the challenge is something they'll be ready for on Saturday.

"We've got our work cut out for us, but I love the challenge," he said. "Really, other than the first quarter of the 2019 game, it's been a very, very close battle."

During the 2019 matchup, the Wildcats simply got outplayed in the first quarter. Then-No. 2 James Madison pounced to a 10-0 lead and converted an early touchdown in the second quarter, extending their lead to 17-0. The outcome was decided in the early minutes of the game and Weber State suffered another heartbreaking 30-14 loss.

It was another 11-win season stopped short of a championship game berth, the farthest the team had gotten in the FCS playoffs in program history.

Although this game won't affect the Wildcats' conference record, their chance at defending the Big Sky Conference title, or their playoff run, this game carries significant weight for a team that was left suffering after two competitive losses in which they had opportunities to win.

This game will illustrate the growth — or setbacks — of the Weber State program in how they perform in what could be the most challenging and important game of its season.

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