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OGDEN — Weber State has had mixed results in snowy weather this season, but on Saturday the Wildcats used a dominant run game and solid defensive performance to come away with an opening round 38-31 win of the playoffs against North Dakota.
At their best point in the game, the Wildcats' biggest lead was a 31-7 advantage over the Fighting Hawks with just under a minute to go before the end of the first half. But North Dakota never gave up and held Weber State to just one touchdown in the second half before ultimately falling short.
In North Dakota's efforts to tie the game up and force overtime, or potentially win, they manufactured a 75-yard touchdown drive, which cut the lead to 7 with just over three minutes to play. The Wildcats' defense was in soft coverage and the goal was to prevent a quick score — make the Fighting Hawks earn it and chew time off the clock.
After Weber State recovered an onside kick, the visitors' defense held strong and forced a Wildcats punt. That gave North Dakota the ball back on their own 16-yard line with a little under two minutes to go. The Hawks picked up a quick first down, but on the next play, North Dakota quarterback Tommy Schuster scrambled right and was strip sacked by freshman linebacker Jack Kelly. The ball rolled out of bounds, but the Hawks faced a long second-and-21.
Three incomplete passes later and the Wildcats went into victory formation to secure the first win on their trail to an FCS championship.
"We knew they (North Dakota) weren't gonna give up; great job by them," head coach Jay Hill said. "I was proud of our team, how we fought; we got out to a great start. I don't love giving up the last two touchdown drives that they got, but proud of the defense getting out of the last one; that was huge."
The defense performed well despite allowing the Hawks the opportunity to get back in the game. The visitors only scored twice in the first half, one of which came on a controversial call. On second down in their own territory, Schuster dropped back and immediately faced pressure from the Weber State front. As he made a throwing motion, the ball slipped out of his hands for what many thought was an incomplete pass; however, none of the officials blew their whistle and North Dakota running back Isaiah Smith scooped up the ball and took it 65 yards for a touchdown.
After review, the officials confirmed the call on the field, which led to a bit of booing from the home fans. The score broke the shutout and fueled some of the fire the Hawks were looking for.
"Couple of weird, crazy plays, but that's part of the adversity you gotta fight through," Hill said.
The offense delivered in a big way throughout the game, despite only scoring once in the second half. The Wildcats attempted to establish the run game and force North Dakota to stop them, which is exactly what they did.
Weber State had two running backs in Josh Davis and Damon Bankston who each went for over 100 yards rushing: Davis with 129 and Bankston with 122. As a team, the Wildcats rushed for 330 yards, which became more important as the game progressed and the snow kept falling.
Quarterback Bronson Barron only completed 5-of-11 passes for 110 yards and one touchdown, which normally wouldn't be an impressive stat line. But with the way the offensive line was blocking and with the shiftiness of the backs, Barron didn't have to do much besides hand it off and watch them work.
"The way we ran the ball today was huge," Hill said. "I've said all along we've got a good O-line, we've got good tight ends, we've got good backs; and to lean on that crew today was huge."
Tight end Hayden Meacham, normally known for his blocking abilities, caught a touchdown pass late in the first half to give the Wildcats their biggest lead of the game. On fourth down at the North Dakota 25-yard line, Barron faked a handoff to Bankston and then quickly lobbed a pass to Meacham who had broken away from the line of scrimmage and past the tight secondary. The big man bobbled the ball a bit but finally secured it and rumbled into the end zone for just his second touchdown of the year.
Overall, Weber State did what it needed to do to advance in the playoffs. While players were disappointed to not get one of the first-round byes, the rankings no longer matter in the postseason. Win and advance, lose and go home; the Wildcats won on Saturday, no matter how close the game looked. Hill's team now gets a chance to redeem themselves next week as they take on No. 4-seeded Montana State in what is sure to be another freezing, snow-plagued game.
"Happy with our guys; win and advance, that's what this is all about," Hill said. "And there's no easy games in the playoffs."