With a 19–16 win over in-state rival Southern Utah University on April 3, the No. 2-ranked Wildcats moved to a 4–0 season record after a strong performance from the defensive unit, which held the SUU passing offense to its worst output of the season.
“We keep getting in these close games, which is not what we want, but it just goes to show how resilient we are and how willing we are to just get any type of win that we can,” Weber State defensive back Desmond Williams said.
Williams forced an SUU fumble with 12:35 to play in the fourth quarter, which put the offense in position to kick what would end up being the game-winning field goal.
“We will not leave the field unless we win,” Williams continued. “It brings us closer together, these close victories, knowing we can pull them out while still not playing our best game.”
The Thunderbirds returned a blocked punt for a touchdown with just under four minutes left in the first half, then Southern Utah quickly drove down the field on its next possession and drained a field goal as time expired to give the Thunderbirds a 9–3 lead at the break.
Aside from the scoring outburst at the end of the first half, the Wildcats’ defense was stifling the Southern Utah offense led by the conference’s second leading passer in quarterback Justin Miller. The offense, however, struggled to capitalize on the play of the defense.
“I thought the defense played absolutely outstanding in the first half,” Wildcats head coach Jay Hill said. “We needed to do a better job of making the other team pay for that. We needed to have a bigger lead, rather than trailing.”
The defense made plays throughout the game. In addition to putting the offense in a prime position for the game-winning field goal, the defense also limited the Thunderbirds to just seven points in the second half.
Defensive back Marque Collins and defensive end Okiki Olorunfunmi picked up back-to-back pass break-ups on Southern Utah’s final offensive possession, which forced a punt and gave the ball to the offense who was able to run the clock down to zero for the 3-point victory. The final defensive possession was a great summary for how the defense played throughout the game.
While Hill praised the whole defense, he especially felt that the play from his secondary was the primary fuel for the defense’s hot performance.
“First and foremost, I put this game on the secondary,” Hill said when asked what made the defense so strong. “I put [the secondary] on an island a lot today. I thought the defensive backs did a great job in man coverage a lot today.”
Miller was coming off of a season-high performance where he threw for 422 yards and three touchdowns, but the ‘Cats secondary limited Miller to just 181 yards through the air.
While trailing early in the second half, Wildcats starting running back Josh Davis went down after an outside run and started grasping at his lower leg. Davis, who came into the game as the Big Sky’s leading rusher, is initially expected to have suffered a high ankle sprain, according to Hill.
But Dontae McMillan came into the game and torched the SUU defense for 138 rushing yards on 13 carries, despite not recording a carry before halftime. McMillan provided the offensive play of the game when he made multiple defenders miss on his way to a 43-yard touchdown scamper early in the fourth quarter, which tied the game at 16.
“When I get onto the field, I only think positive because I know what I can do. I felt a good feeling inside myself that I knew I was going to do great,” McMillan said.
McMillan’s teammate and fellow running back, Daniel Wright Jr., was also solid when Davis went out, chipping in another 45 yards on 11 carries. Hill was very praiseworthy of the way Wright and McMillan quickly stepped up in Davis’ absence.
“I’m so happy for Dontae and Daniel for how they came in and picked up the rifle,” Hill said. “That’s how it works with us. Someone gets hurt, the backup is going to play, and come in and play just as well.”
The running backs led a rushing attack that amassed nearly 200 more rushing yards than their opponents. Hill was adamant that if his team is out-gaining its opposition by that much on the ground, they should be beating teams by greater margins.
Penalties for Weber State were a big reason for why the game remained so close. The ‘Cats committed 10 penalties for 112 yards compared to just two penalties for 12 yards from SUU.
Hill says that those are things he and his team will need to clean up if they want to play their “best football,” something that Hill said his team has yet to do this season, but Hill wanted to make it clear that the good in the game certainly outweighs the bad.
“I just sat there and watched, play after play, where the players had to battle and mentally be tough,” Hill said. “I thought they handled it outstandingly and I couldn’t be more proud of them. That’s a good team we just beat.”
The ‘Cats will look to play to their potential on April 10 when they face Idaho State for the second time this season.