Navigating the ever-competitive Big Sky Conference is no easy task. Some combination of traditional contenders Montana State, Montana and Eastern Washington can be counted on to be in the mix for the league title on a yearly basis. A conference already known for such quality head coaches as Dan Hawkins of UC Davis, Aaron Best of EWU, and 2019 Eddie Robinson Award winner Troy Taylor of Sacramento State just added Beau Baldwin (Cal Poly) back into the fold, in addition to Northern Colorado’s hiring of two-time Super Bowl champion Ed McCaffrey.
However, in the midst of the Big Sky’s ascent to a 2019 season in which it notched four FCS playoff seeds to lead the country in that department, there has been one clear riser: Weber State.
The Wildcats found their way to another Big Sky championship in 2019, this time sharing the crown with upstart Sacramento State. It’s Weber’s third straight Big Sky title after going without the conference trophy since 2008.
The man in charge for all three of those league championships has been sixth-year Wildcats head coach Jay Hill, the longtime Utah special teams coordinator who has established a program culture at Weber State in which special teams are from the forgotten side of the ball.
This emphasis on special teams is reflected by WSU’s on-field talent and national statistical rankings. The Wildcats’ average of 3.92 yards allowed per punt return is good for 13th in the FCS, and their own 11.52 yards per punt return are top-25 nationally at 24th.
Senior punter and Big Sky Second Team All-Conference selection Doug Lloyd has been a big help to his punt coverage unit, averaging 43.3 yards per punt with a long of 72 yards. He has also recorded 11 punts of at least 50 yards.
In the punt-return game, freshman wideout Haze Hadley has stepped in admirably for past All-American Rashid Shaheed, who was averaging nearly 17 yards per punt return prior to an injury. Running back Josh Davis, the 2018 Jerry Rice Award recipient, has handled kickoff returns more than adequately, scampering at a clip of 31 yards per return.
Junior Trey Tuttle, the Big Sky’s Second Team All-Conference kicker, has been quite reliable in the placekicking game, converting 22 of 26 field goals on the year (going 7 for 7 on kicks between 40 and 49 yards) and tallying 30 touchbacks on kickoffs.
Although coach Hill, thanks in no small part to his continued commitment to special teams, has guided WSU to a string of Big Sky championships and has established the Wildcats as a top-five program in the FCS, there is one more step to take to firmly plant the Weber State flag among the FCS elite: a quarterfinal-round win.
Friday night’s prime-time meeting with Big Sky foe and sixth-seeded Montana, set to be televised on ESPN2, is Weber’s third consecutive quarterfinal appearance. The Wildcats are seeking their first trip to the semifinals after a dramatic and narrow loss at James Madison on Ethan Ratke’s game-winning field goal in the 2017 quarters and after a 2018 quarterfinal defeat to Maine at home.
The desire for that breakthrough into the semifinals is seemingly heightened by the fact that WSU may have revenge on its mind against Montana, as the Grizzlies dealt the Wildcats their first Big Sky loss of 2019 almost a month ago by a score of 35-16 in Missoula.
Friday’s playoff game, however, is set for Weber’s friendly confines in Ogden, Utah, where wintry conditions are expected. If the weather slows offense for both teams, the play of the special-teams units only becomes more important, both as a source of offense and as a catalyst on defense.
Though Weber State boasts significant talent on special teams, Montana’s group is firing on all cylinders as well. That unit is highlighted by Malik Flowers, whose 173 yards of kick returns in his team’s decisive second-round win over Southeastern Louisiana helped him set a new Griz record for kick-return yardage in a season (877). To top it all off, Flowers had an 81-yard, momentum-swinging kickoff-return touchdown against the Lions, so to say that he and the Grizzlies’ special teamers enter Ogden with a fair amount of their own momentum would be more than justified.
As Weber State plays host to Montana in the quarterfinal weekend’s only matchup pitting two seeded squads, the battle on special teams is shaping up to be, well, a special one — and it could decide whether the Wildcats avenge their November loss to the Griz and advance to their first national semifinal in program history.