Despite drawing first blood with a 3–0 lead, No. 2-ranked James Madison University put No. 8-ranked Weber State University in their place early on in the game and took a 37–24 victory.
By the second-and-goal with 6:38 on the clock, the Dukes held a 10–3 lead when ‘Cats junior quarterback Randall Johnson stumbled backward and attempted to hand the ball off to sophomore running back Kris Jackson and lost control of the ball, putting it on the turf.
JMU’s sophomore safety Josh Sarratt scooped up the ball and ran untouched for an 88-yard touchdown, knocking the air out of the 11,222 Weber State fans at Stewart Stadium. Sarratt’s touchdown put the Dukes up 17–3 going into half, and JMU never slowed down on the way to their victory.
“That was a huge swing in momentum,” Wildcats head coach Jay Hill said. “It was like a bomb went off. The level of like, what the heck just happened. We’ve got to do a better job handling adversity.”
Johnson was under center for the Wildcats in place of freshman Bronson Barron, who sat out with an injury. Although Johnson struggled, he orchestrated Weber State’s opening eight-play drive highlighted by a 23-yard pass to senior wide receiver Rashid Shaheed, who made a man miss and took off up the sideline picking up more yards-after-catch.
The momentous shift squandered efforts of the WSU defense that forced JMU to punt from their seven-yard line, and the ‘Cats took over at the Dukes’ 37 with a 12-play drive that took 4:52 off the clock.
Following his costly fumble, Johnson struck back against the Duke’s defense, leading Weber State on a seven-play drive where Josh Davis rushed three times for 13 yards and snagged an 8-yard pass, but on second-and-3 from the Duke’s 40, Johnson bombed a pass to wideout Ty MacPherson, but it was underthrown and picked off by JMU cornerback Greg Ross.
Johnson was 6-of-13 passing for 69 yards with an interception in his one-half of play before sophomore Kylan Weisser took over the ‘Cats’ signal calling duties to start the third quarter after Hill swapped him out.
The Dukes started the second half with a burst of energy when JMU’s quarterback Cole Johnson completed five passes in a row for 25 yards followed by freshman running back Austin Douglas who took advantage of a Wildcat defensive breakdown and bolted through the Weber State Defensive line for a 45-yard gain before being pulled down by ‘Cats senior safety Preston Smith at Weber State’s 5-yard line.
“The effort was there, but we have to find a way to create some turnovers,” Wildcats’ junior defensive end George Tarlas said. “Get three-and-outs and put our offense back on the field.”
After limiting the Dukes’ attack in the opening half, the ‘Cats defense gave up 225 yards in the second.
Johnson facilitated the Dukes’ offense seamlessly all night, throwing for 177 yards, tossing two touchdowns and running for another.
“The quarterback, he’s very poised,” Hill said. “Bottom line, they executed very well.”
JMU wide receivers Kris Thornton and Antwane Wells Jr. each pulled down eight receptions with Wells Jr. going for 76 yards and two touchdowns.
The Dukes’ kicker, Ethan Ratke, knocked through JMU’s first points of the game — a 44-yard field goal, the 78th of his career, which set the all-time FCS record for field goals made.
After multiple turnovers and game-shifting plays backed Weber State against a wall, the ‘Cats clawed two touchdowns midway through the fourth quarter. Weisser hit Shaheed running free into the end zone for a 27-yard touchdown, capping off a 12-play drive with Davis carrying ball twice and catching a 24-yard pass.
Davis ran in Weber State’s final points of the night from 2 yards out with under two minutes left.
“They are a top-two team in the country,” Hill said. “They acted like it. They looked like it. They’re physical, and they execute very well.”