Rematch of the year: Wildcats get 2nd shot at Montana State, this time in playoffs

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OGDEN — The setting will be almost the same: a blistering cold day with strong winds and a chance to knock off one of the top FCS teams in the country.

That's what awaits Weber State as it prepares for a rematch with Montana State; but this time, with the playoffs on the line. The mentality is simple: win and advance, lose and go home.

The first time these two teams met earlier in the year was just past the halfway point of the season. The Wildcats went into that game undefeated, while the Bobcats' only loss was to FBS opponent Oregon State. On a wet, cold, and windy day in Montana, the Bobcats made a few more plays than the Wildcats and came away with the 43-38 win.

While the loss didn't ruin Weber State's already successful season, it made things more difficult since the Bobcats went on to become the No. 4-seeded team in the playoffs to earn a first-round bye, while the Wildcats ended up without a seed and had to play the first round in a snowy win over North Dakota.

"I wanted this matchup, because I think they're (Montana State) a great team," head coach Jay Hill said. "And I really believe this: If you can beat Montana State you can beat anybody. And I knew they were gonna be a seeded team once we played them the first time. ... The reality is we left so much on the field that first time we played that I wanna go in there and play a clean game and see how it falls."

Montana State went on to finish the regular season with a 10-1 record, while Weber State took another loss a couple weeks later in a close matchup with undefeated Sacramento State, which meant an 9-2 record and just outside one of the coveted eight seeds.

But ranks don't matter anymore. The best football team will move on while the loser heads home.

To many, including Hill, Weber State cost themselves the win over Montana State in the first matchup. That game went viral nationally in the college football world because the Wildcats gave up 8 points on four safeties, thanks to long snapper Grant Sands hiking the ball over the punter's head and out the end zone each time.

With the final score being a margin of only 5 points, it left both teams wondering what could have been different had those errors not occurred. Not only did the Bobcats get 2 points each time, they also got the ball back with relatively good field position, which set up more scores.

While those errors may have cost the Wildcats the first time, Hill and his team recognize it's a new game.

"I talked to Grant Sands today," Hill said. "I said, 'Grant, you know you're gonna go in there and the players are gonna be talking smack and the fans are gonna be on you.' We all know what happened last time. He smiled at me, he's like 'Coach, I know that.'

"This is not something we hide from, and we understand that we made some costly mistakes last time, but we also understand with all those crazy mistakes and everything that went against us in that game, we still had a chance — we were still 20 yards away from winning that game in the end."

Another huge reason Montana State won that game came from the play — specifically the running ability — of their quarterback Tommy Mellott, who outrushed Weber State 273-206 by four different ball carriers. Though the field may have been slick due to the weather conditions, the defense struggled to contain the mobile quarterback and he kept the Bobcats' offense alive.

Weber State's defense went into the game averaging only 11 points allowed per game in their six prior contests, but Mellott and the Bobcats offense easily racked up 43 points and provided a wake-up call to one of the nation's top defenses.

One benefit of meeting again in the playoffs is that Weber State's defense has a lot more film of Montana State's offense to prepare for it. Though it's not hard to see why the Bobcats have been so successful this year, the Wildcats now have a better idea of what they need to do and how they need to do it.

"There are some things (we've learned) from seeing them play a whole season," said linebacker and defensive captain Winston Reid. "But our main thing is just stopping the run and things will be pretty good for us."

Weber State's offense performed well over the course of the season, including its first playoff game, and first-year offensive coordinator Mickey Mental's has the offense averaging 36 points per game. In the first time between Weber State and Montana State, the Wildcats put up 38 points.

It's not often an offense scores that many points and still loses, but it highlighted how important the defense will be in the game, especially now that temperatures have continued to drop since the first matchup. Hill's team can expect the Bobcats to stick with what they do best and pound the ball on the ground. And as both teams found out in Week 8, whichever team executes in all facets of the game the best will walk away the winner.

"If you're gonna be great and you're gonna win this thing (the championship), you've gotta beat teams like Montana State," Hill said. "So I don't see them changing much. What they've done has been very successful, why would they change? It'd be dumb to change.

"They do what they do, we do what we do. It's gonna be a battle of who does it better on Saturday."

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