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OGDEN — There was only one acceptable way to send off 13 Wildcat seniors who helped lead Weber State to four consecutive Big Sky Conference titles prior to this season.
Sparked by a hat trick of interceptions that were each returned for touchdowns, Weber State — at last — got a home win by defeating Northern Colorado 48-17 to finish the season 6-5 overall (5-3 Big Sky), clinching a seventh-straight winning season.
"I just can't say enough about the senior class and all they were able to accomplish: seven straight winning seasons is a huge deal," head coach Jay Hill said. "I think the most before was three or four, now it's seven. The senior class has a lot to be proud of, finished winning four of our last five and playing more like we thought we would."
Following a 29-yard touchdown reception for the Bears by Kassidy Woods that put the Wildcats down 10-3 early in the second quarter, Ben Raybon unexpectedly sent a line drive kick off to the back of BJ Taufalele's legs and recovered his own kick on the Bear's 45-yard line.
Two plays later, junior safety Desmond Williams perfectly read the eyes of Northern Colorado's quarterback Alec Lewis and picked off a pass on the sideline. With several of his teammates ahead blocking for him, Williams ran down the sideline, cut back into the middle and scored the Wildcats' first touchdown of the game by a 65-yard return.
"Our coaches always put us in great positions to make plays," said Williams, who had five tackles, a tackle for loss and pass breakup. "I feel like all season we've been close, but it's always been an emphasis getting turnovers; so it's about taking the opportunities that come to you."
On the ensuing drive, Northern Colorado quickly answered back. Looking down field for Woods, Lewis wound up and released the ball before getting sacked. Woods was unable to get both his hands on the wide-thrown ball, and instead, dove and tipped the ball to his teammate Dylan Thomas, who miraculously ended up with the ball in his hands and ran 63 yards into the end zone with 6:02 remaining in the half.
The score put the Bears up 17-10, but that would be the last time they would put any points on the board, even with 36 minutes left to play.
Weber State quarterback Bronson Barron nearly threw an interception of his own, but it was called back due to a passing interference penalty by Jerone Jackson. That gave the Wildcats an opportunity to find Justin Malone on a slant into the middle of the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown to even the score.
The Bears were held to a three-and-out series on their following possession and gave the ball back to the Wildcats with 14 seconds remaining in the half.
After a short 2-yard gain on the first play, Barron rolled right out of the pocket and looked for Haze Hadley who was just a few yards out of the end zone. The 5-foot-7 wide receiver jumped up and snatched a 50-50 ball at the 1-yard line and was brought down into the end zone for a 53-yard touchdown to give Weber State a 24-17 lead at the break.
Barron finished the game throwing 14-of-21 for 155 yards and two touchdowns while Hadley led the Wildcat receivers with 68 yards on three catches and a touchdown.
"I thought it was huge. That's one of those examples where we score a late touchdown, and they go, go, go," the eighth-year head coach said. "They throw incomplete, throw a 5-yard pass, we call a timeout, throw incomplete again. Geez, at that point, we got nothing; we might as well take a shot."
Coming out of halftime, the Weber State defense controlled the entire third quarter and flustered the Northern Colorado offense.
It was senior safety Braxton Gunther who started the defensive pressure by intercepting a pass and returning it 53 yards on the Bears' first possession of the half. This was only the fourth time in Weber State's history that two pick sixes occurred in the same game.
The next drive wasn't any better for the Bears. After a short three plays in which they lost 5 yards, Northern Colorado was set to punt but fumbled the snap and was brought down at their own 8-yard line. Senior fullback Clay Moss was sent in to clean up the short field and muscled 8 yards into the end zone .
Midway through the quarter, senior linebacker Conner Mortensen also got in on the defensive-scoring action.
Following a possession where the Wildcats were held to a three-and-out series, Mortensen picked off Lewis at midfield and ran 50 yards down the right sideline into the end zone — the first time in program history three interceptions were returned for scores. The third return was enough for Weber State to put the brakes on and cruise to victory.
"Losing wasn't an option; it didn't matter who it was, we weren't going to lose," Mortensen said. "Just grateful we were able to do that and play so well at the same time, showing what we usually do."