For the first time in school history, Weber State University hosted an FCS football playoff game in Stewart Stadium, beating the Leathernecks of Western Illinois University by a score of 21–19 on Nov. 25.
After struggling early, the Wildcats settled down their nerves on defense and started to find their rhythm offensively.
Head coach Jay Hill praised the defense’s recovery after giving up a 39-yard reception to the Leathernecks on the opening drive of the game.
“Acklin made that great catch down their sideline. That was third down,” Hill said. “They make a great play and keep the drive going, so you have to give them a ton of credit. Our defense settled in and played pretty good from then on out, but that’s our defense. We expect to play like that.”
Senior quarterback Stefan Cantwell eventually found success through the air, hitting senior receiver Drew Batchelor for the game’s opening touchdown on a 33-yard pass early in the second quarter.
Senior tight end and team captain Andrew Vollert set the tone for the ’Cats early, snagging a one-handed grab across the middle of the field and nearly finding the end zone as he was tackled after a 50-yard gain.
“Honestly, I just kind of react on instinct. I don’t really think one hand or two hands — it just kind of happened that way. And again, Stefan threw a perfect ball. It hit me right in stride,” Vollert said. “It probably would have been SportsCenter Top 10 if I had scored though.”
One of the key matchups of the game was between senior cornerback and recent Reese’s Senior Bowl invitee Taron Johnson and Leatherneck senior receiver Jaelon Acklin, as the two battled back and forth all day.
“Acklin did a great job of catching the ball in traffic. Taron was draped all over him, and all he did was catch the ball. That kid deserves a ton of respect and a ton of credit. He’s one heck of a football player,” said Hill.
Both players found success and failure in the matchup, as Acklin finished with 116 receiving yards on 10 receptions, while Johnson had nine total tackles and one pass breakup on the day.
Acklin said, “He made some plays. I made some plays. There’s nothing better than that — two great players going at it.”
Overall, Cantwell led Weber State with 186 passing yards, completing 18 passes on 27 attempts and finding the end zone three times through the air. Equally as dynamic, Cantwell also led all Wildcat rushers, scampering for 55 rushing yards on 17 rushes.
Vollert led all Wildcats with 112 receiving yards on eight receptions. Deciding that his one-handed grab was not enough, Vollert eventually found the end zone on a back-shoulder throw off a sluggo route.
Defensively, local Fremont High School standout Jordan Preator led Weber State with 11 total tackles on the day, as well as one tackle for loss.
Weber State now holds their third ever FCS playoff win, as the team celebrated afterward on the field by waving the purple Weber State flag. The Wildcats have now reached 10 wins on the season for only the third time ever.
With the win, WSU will advance to the second round of the FCS playoffs and give themselves a chance for revenge, as they face the Southern Utah University Thunderbirds in Cedar City on Dec. 2.
In their first meeting this season, SUU gave the Wildcats their lone Big Sky Conference loss on Oct. 14, when the Thunderbirds claimed the 32–16 victory. Cantwell was knocked out of that matchup with a concussion, so he is itching for another shot at the Thunderbirds.
“I’m super excited to go down there and play a full game, especially since the defense played lights out (against Western Illinois). We’re going to get the offense going a little bit more next week, so it’s going to be a big game,” Cantwell said.
After debating that this year’s Weber State team could be the best in school history, coach Hill stated the team is not necessarily ready to celebrate yet.
“We’re not done. It would be disappointing if we ended it like this right now. We’ve got to continue to go,” Hill said. “The seniors deserve to go out the right way, and we’ve got to go play one heck of a football game Saturday.”