Down by one point and two seconds away from a shocking upset loss to Northern Arizona, Wildcats’ quarterback Randall Johnson dropped back and rolled to his right, launching a high-arcing Hail Mary from the 50-yard line into the end zone.
The football landed in the hands of leaping tight end Justin Malone, who fell to the end zone turf, swarmed by NAU defenders for the game-winning touchdown.
“I actually didn’t see it until the ball was coming down,” Malone said. “I didn’t see Randall release the ball. All I know is we do that drill every Thursday and I went up and tried to go grab the ball and came down with it. All props to Randall for throwing the perfect ball.”
After wide receivers Rashid Shaheed and Ty MacPherson started jumping around in celebration, a frenzy ensued on the Stewart Stadium field as the Weber State football team left the sideline and rushed onto the field while the Wildcat fans let out a cheer for WSU’s jaw-dropping 28–23 victory.
“I got to give credit to the offensive line for actually letting me get the ball off,” Johnson said. “They were blocking their butts off. I just had to put it up there. We got a specific way of how we run our Hail Mary, so I just had to put it up there and let playmakers make plays.”
Malone leapt over four NAU defenders on his game-winning touchdown snag while two other Lumberjacks were standing in the front of end zone trying to bat the ball down, along with three other Wildcats trying to catch the ball.
“During the timeout, I caught eye contact with Justin Malone, and I said somebody’s going to have to go high point this and come down with it,” Wildcats’ head coach Jay Hill said. “He just made a huge play.”
Until the final play of the game, Malone had caught just one pass for four yards.
“Every kid dreams about stuff like this,” Malone said. “Making a big play when it’s crunch time.”
The game was junior quarterback Johnson’s first start for the Wildcats after it was announced hours before kickoff that starting quarterback Bronson Barron was out with a left wrist injury.
“He did a lot of good things, but I think he’s got to see things a little bit better at times and put the ball out there to where our guys can make plays,” Hill said of Johnson’s play. “To put your backup in that situation when most people didn’t know that he was going to be the starter this week. That’s just a big win for Randall.”
Johnson completed 11 of 19 passes for 133 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
The play that set the scene for the Wildcats’ astonishing finish was a fourth-quarter fumble by junior running back Daniel Wright Jr. with 4:14 to play — WSU’s second red-zone turnover of the game.
The play was reviewed and the fumble stood as called on the field — which was met with a chorus of boos from the crowd of 4,218 inside Stewart Stadium.
The fumble ended WSU’s 16-play 79-yard drive that had run 8:07 off the clock.
“We turned it over twice in the red zone in the second half, and you can’t do that,” Hill said.
The Lumberjacks took over at their own 5-yard line with the Wildcats clinging to a 22–16 lead.
NAU quarterback Keondre Wudtee threw for 72 yards on the Lumberjack’s 14-play 95-yard drive while also running in the go-ahead touchdown from one yard out with only 17 seconds left on the clock.
After NAU kicker Luis Aguilar’s kickoff sailed out of bounds for a penalty, the Wildcats were set to take the field at their 35-yard line, trailing 23–22.
An unsportsmanlike conduct call on NAU’s Lionell Wiggins set the Wildcats up at the 50-yard line, but WSU’s final drive of the game stalled out when Johnson’s first two pass attempts fell incomplete, including a first-down scramble that took nearly 10 seconds off the clock.
Hill said players would have ideally gotten the ball field-goal range and kicked it in for another 3 points and the win, “but that would’ve been boring.”
Hill called the Wildcats’ final timeout with two seconds left.
“When I called timeout with two seconds left, it was just to really gather the troops and tell them we’ve practiced this Hail Mary every week for this reason,” Hill said.
Then magic happened in the north end zone of Stewart Stadium.
The Wildcats were in position to put the game away multiple times throughout the game, but turnovers kept the Lumberjacks in striking distance.
Johnson was picked off by NAU’s Morgan Vest at the Lumberjack one-yard line, and redshirt freshman running back Dontae McMillan fumbled in the third quarter at the WSU 38-yard line.
On the defensive side of the ball, WSU’s Preston Smith was on the prowl and forced two turnovers.
The senior safety picked off NAU wide receiver Brandon Porter after the Lumberjack took a handoff from Wudtee on an attempted trick play.
The Wildcats’ defense gave up two touchdowns in the game, the first an NAU running back Draycen Hall 49-yard run, and the second being Wudtee’s go-ahead QB keeper in the fourth quarter.
Smith snagged his second interception of the game from NAU’s backup quarterback Jeff Widener after he replaced Wudtee for a single drive.
On NAU’s first offensive possession, Wildcat cornerback Eddie Heckard’s diving one-handed interception set up WSU with the football.
Johnson dropped back and tossed a 44-yard bomb to Rashid Shaheed, who dove for the ball, landing on the purple turf with the ball secured for the first Wildcat touchdown of the game.
“The first touchdown to Rashid was just on the button perfect,” Hill said.
WSU took a 14–0 lead after Johnson rocketed a pass left to MacPherson who pitched the ball to O-lineman Noah Atagi, who trotted in for the razzle-dazzle touchdown.
To start the second half, Shaheed took off upfield toward the left sideline and faked a handoff to Josh Davis running the opposite direction, confusing the NAU special teams unit, and Shaheed found daylight and hit the afterburners turning into a blur of purple for a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown.
“We got the lead at halftime, and we came right back out of the gate with a kickoff return that I thought Coach Ridley did a great job of designing,” Hill said. “Then we got the two-point conversion.”
Shaheed was named the Big Sky Special Teams Player of the Week for his fifth kickoff return touchdown as a Wildcat, which is not only the most in Weber State school history, but a Big Sky Conference record.
Shaheed led WSU in receiving — catching three passes for 55 yards and a touchdown.
Davis rushed for 141 yards, including his explosive longest run of the game of 42 yards.
WSU improved to 3–0 on the season, and the win was Hill’s 50th at Weber State.
“This’ll be a great lesson for them,” Hill said. “Sometimes you learn way more in an experience like this than you do in a 21-point win.”
The Wildcats are undefeated at home in the team’s last ten games at Stewart Stadium — a Weber State school record.
WSU’s next game comes on April 3, when the team heads south to take on the SUU Thunderbirds in Cedar City.