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OGDEN — It takes slim to no mistakes to win a game, especially when you are up against the No. 2 team in the county.
For Weber State, costly first-half turnovers ultimately shifted momentum and decided the outcome of what could have been a revenge game as the Wildcats fell to James Madison 37-24 in the teams' home opener.
Down 10-3 and holding James Madison to a three-and-out series, the Wildcats had perfect field position and a perfect opportunity to score from the Dukes' 37-yard line early in the second quarter. But that opportunity was blown when junior quarterback Randall Johnson, who started in place of an injured Bronson Barron, fumbled the ball and was picked up by the Dukes' Josh Sarratt, who returned the ball 88 yards for his first career touchdown to give James Madison a 17-3 lead.
"That was a huge swing in momentum, to go from potentially being tied 10-10 to down 17-3 was big," Weber State head coach Jay Hill said.
To close the second quarter, the Wildcats had another opportunity to close the gap and to gain some momentum going into the break, but, again, another turnover halted their chance. After receiving the ball on their own 28-yard line to start the possession, the Wildcats punched the ball to the opposite 40 and looked deep to the end zone for a highlight play, but Dukes cornerback Greg Ross intercepted the pass.
"The game, in my opinion, came down to losing the turnover margin. In my opinion, the late interception, critical fumble, 14-point swing, and when we got field position going into score," Hill said. "I thought we were playing pretty good at the time; we had the wind at our back at that point in time. If we can tie it 10-10, wind at your back for the next six or seven minutes, who knows?"
When the Wildcats received the ball from the opening kickoff, it seemed like the offense had found an early groove. Senior Rashid Shaheed returned the kickoff 55 yards and a 23-yard reception, which led to an early 36-yard field goal in less than a minute. But that groove and offensive energy was short-lived.
Ethan Ratke knocked in a 44-yard field goal for the Dukes on the following possession and broke the record for most career field goals in FCS history with 76; however, that wasn't the highlight that would be the most exciting for James Madison during the night.
While the offense had a difficult time scoring in the first half, Weber State's defense played well and only gave up 119 yards to an explosive James Madison offense. But the roles reversed in the second half; and while the offense found ways to score, the defense could not stop the Dukes from moving the ball up the field.
In less than three minutes into the second half, the Dukes took the ball 75 yards, led by a career high 45-yard run by Austin Douglas. The drive was capped off on a 5-yard touchdown pass. In the third quarter alone, the Wildcats gave up 194 yards (and 359 yards for the game).
"I feel like they adjusted some things, but it's more of a discipline thing on our defense. We just missed the gap, so that's things that we can fix; it was just people missing their gaps, and one of them was mine," Weber State defensive end George Tarlas said. "You've got to take responsibility for that and learn from it; and the best thing you could do is keep your head up and keep going."
After Johnson's two turnovers in the first half, he was replaced by Kylan Weisser; Johnson finished the game 6-for-13 for 69 yards.
And although Weisser wasn't perfect, he gave the Wildcats a new look and helped convert on scoring opportunities. Weisser finished the game 13-for-22 for 164 yards and a touchdown, but the halftime deficit and momentum-killing plays were too much for Weber to overcome.
"You've got to give James Madison credit, they're a top 2 team in the country," Hill said. "They acted like it, they look like it; they're physical, they execute very well."
Weber State's next game will feature another top-25 opponent as they start conference play and host No. 14 UC Davis, who is 3-0 to start the season. So although the Wildcats blew an opportunity to showcase the team and earn a win over a team who's knocked them out of the playoffs twice, they'll need to brush the loss off and learn from their mistakes.
Every team will be looking to knock off the four-time Big Sky Champions.