'There was disappointment': Unseeded Wildcats to host North Dakota in FCS playoffs

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OGDEN — Head coach Jay Hill and his team filed into the team meeting room on Sunday for the FCS playoffs selection show.

The Wildcats hoped they had done enough during the regular season to earn one of the eight seeds in the postseason bracket and a first-round bye, which would give them an extra week of practice.

Most everyone inside and outside of the football program knew Weber State had a chance. Their only two losses during the regular season came at the hands of undefeated Sacramento State and one-loss Montana State by a combined 8 points. Those two were sure to get a top-four seeds; and while a handful of other teams had one less loss than the Wildcats, many of them hadn't performed as well as Hill's team had in all their games.

Several FCS teams will play at least one FBS opponent during the year in what is often considered a "buy" game by the higher division in an effort to guarantee an easy win in exchange for a nice check to the FCS school.

Of all the matchups this season, Weber State had arguably the best win as they handled Utah State with ease in a 35-7 matchup in Logan. The Aggies became bowl eligible with their sixth win of the season and have one of the better records of FBS teams that lost to FCS teams.

So when it came time for the eight seeds to be given out, the hope was the Wildcats had proven themselves sufficiently to get a seventh or eighth seed and a pass through the first round. Weber State's hopes fell as the seventh seed was granted to Incarnate Word (10-1) and the eighth seed was given to undefeated Holy Cross (11-0). Hill's team was later revealed to have been the first team to miss one of the seeds, effectively ranking them ninth in the country (the entire FCS bracket here).

"Absolutely, there was disappointment," Hill said a few days after the selection show. "When you think you're gonna get a seed and you don't, there's no way to hide it. And I'm OK with kids saying, 'You know what? We're a little disappointed, we thought we were gonna be seeded and maybe have a bye, go home for Thanksgiving and all that stuff,' but that's not the reality of what happened.

"So now you gotta be tough, now you gotta rebound, now you gotta execute. We've got a very, very good North Dakota team that has all our respect and attention right now, and we've gotta go win a game."

While having to practice and prepare over Thanksgiving may not have been top of the players' wish lists, the Wildcats get the chance to host their first-round game against North Dakota (7-4). The Fighting Hawks come to Ogden after finishing third in the Missouri Valley Conference — behind South Dakota State and North Dakota State, who earned the No. 1 and No. 3 overall seeds in the playoffs, respectively.

Weber State has a history with North Dakota, as ninth-year head coach Bubba Schweigert's team used to be part of the Big Sky Conference. The Wildcats hold a 4-1 series advantage over the Fighting Hawks, and the program's first victory was Hill's first as Weber State's head coach in 2014.

"Coach Schweigert's one of the guys I have the most respect for," Hill said. "I love his teams and the way they play. They're super tough, they make you stop the run — they're dang good at stopping the run. They find creative ways of getting the ball down the field.

"Bottom line: They're very sound. Offense, defense, special teams, super sound — well coached. They play with great technique. You've gotta be tough to beat them; if you're not tough, you don't have a shot. Tons of respect for coach Schweigert and all that his teams do."

Hill has plenty of experience with postseason play; this will be the 10th time ever Weber State has advanced to the FCS playoffs, and it's the sixth time in the last seven seasons for Hill. The Wildcats first reached the playoffs under Hill in 2016; and since then have an even 5-5 record in postseason games. The Wildcats advanced to the semifinal game in 2019 when they lost to James Madison.

Weber State has dominated in their wins this season, and competed until the very end of their two losses. Knowing how to compete in a playoffs-like atmosphere is essential for executing a long championship run like the Wildcats are hoping for.

"I think it's huge for the success of our team to experience tough times and tough losses," team captain and senior wide receiver Ty MacPherson said. "Especially because in those two losses we had we had every opportunity, every — you know, we had plays to make and we didn't make them.

"Me and a couple of captains and the older guys, the guys that have been around, we just have to emphasize that if you make a mistake you make a mistake; it's football. We're playing against really, really good teams each and every week and in a great conference. ... You've gotta make plays when it happens; if you don't, you gotta move on."

Saturday marks the first big test in Weber State's bid for a FCS championship, which is something the Wildcats have never done. The winner of the first-round game in Ogden will move onto No. 4-seeded Montana State — a revenge opportunity Hill's team certainly wants. But the Fighting Hawks come first and foremost, and the Wildcats will be ready for the challenge.

15 Wildcats received All-Conference honors in the Big Sky

On Wednesday, the Big Sky released the names of the players who earned all-conference honors for this season, something the head coach of each team votes on.

Defensive back Eddie Heckard and offensive lineman Noah Atagi made the first team for the third time in their careers. Linebacker Winston Reid, defensive back Maxwell Anderson and kick returner Abraham Williams all received first-team honors for the first time in their careers.

Wide receiver MacPherson, offensive lineman Jordan Lutui, defensive tackle Kalisi Moli and punt returner Haze Hadley all earned second-team honors for the first time in their careers, while safety Desmond Williams made the second team. This was Williams' second all-conference selection after he made the first team during the spring 2021 season.

Running back Dontae McMillan and offensive lineman Ethan Atagi earned third-team honors — McMillan's second time named to an all-conference team and Atagi's first.

Tight end Justin Malone, running back Damon Bankston and defensive back Kamden Garrett were named honorable mentions, each for the first time in his career.

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