Weber State Remains Undefeated After Thrilling Win Over NAU

Mar 27, 2021, 6:06 PM

Weber State Wildcats - Northern Arizona Lumberjacks...

(Courtesy of Robert Casey / Weber State Athletics)

(Courtesy of Robert Casey / Weber State Athletics)

OGDEN, Utah – For many years, the Weber State University football team has had all kinds of problems with the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks.

Even as the Wildcats were rising towards the cream of the crop in the FCS, bad breaks still awaited them seemingly every time the two teams met up. Entering Saturday, Northern Arizona had prevailed in four of the last five matchups, including a wild turnover slog in Flagstaff in 2018. Weber State even trailed the Lumberjacks at halftime in 2019 before an offensive barrage finally ended the losing streak in an emphatic 51-28 victory.

For a brief time, it seemed the prior negative vibes in the series were easily going to be put to rest on what turned out to be a pleasant spring day at Stewart Stadium in Ogden.

Weber State used an array of explosive plays to take a swift 14-0 lead and it appeared they might be on their way to cruise control. But the Lumberjacks made the Wildcats fight for every inch over the course of the rest of the game, controlling the time of possession and taking a page out of Weber’s playbook by forcing multiple red zone turnovers.

Even in a game that produces as much adversity as this one did, Jay Hill led teams usually find a way to come out on top. But a disastrous late-game fumble led to Northern Arizona taking the lead with 17 seconds left, and the ‘Cats nine-game home winning streak was all but over.

All but over.

Somehow, someway, the Wildcats found a way. A series of inexplicable Lumberjack penalties set up quarterback Randall Johnson and the offense at midfield with 17 seconds to play. Johnson had mightily struggled since midway through the opening quarter in his first start as a Wildcat but was given one final chance to make magic happen.

Probability of a miracle dwindled even more when Johnson’s first two pass attempts of the final drive fell short, leaving Weber State with just two seconds left. Hill called timeout to try and come up with one last gasp of something. Anything.

The ‘Cats returned to the field and Johnson scrambled around to his right before he let it fly, launching the ball as far and hard as he could. The ball reached the end zone where tight end Justin Malone leapt, grasped it, and held on despite being covered by multiple Lumberjack defenders.

The play was reviewed and stood as called, and Weber State fans were treated to perhaps the most improbable ending in school history. A 50-yard Hail Mary from Johnson to Malone rescued the Wildcats at the last possible second, and they poured onto the field in celebration, having improbably defeated Northern Arizona 28-23.

The ‘Cats led 22-16 with 12:21 left when they started a drive at their own 16-yard line. WSU methodically drove down the field, using a mix of carries by Josh Davis and Daniel Wright Jr. to chew eight minutes off the clock. It had all the makings of a sequence that would provide an insurance score to help put the game away, but disaster struck for the Wildcats.

Wright fumbled on the 6-yard line and the Lumberjacks regained possession. Despite replays showing that Wright was seemingly down before the ball came loose, the ruling was upheld.

Northern Arizona quarterback Keondre Wutee then led his team down the field, using five different plays of ten yards or more to enter the red zone. After an 11-yard pass completion got NAU to the 1-yard line, Wudtee scored on a rush to tie the game at 22.

Immediately after the touchdown, the Lumberjacks were flagged for excessive celebration. Hill opted to take the 15-yard penalty on the extra point attempt, but Luis Aguilar converted the 35-yard kick to seemingly give Northern Arizona a win.

Aguilar made a costly mistake on the ensuing kickoff, sending the ball out of bounds. That automatically gave Weber State the ball at their own 35, then NAU committed another unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to move the ball to midfield and set up Johnson’s heroics.

The day started with news of a significant change to Weber State’s lineup. Bronson Barron was unable to answer the bell at quarterback due to a wrist injury, so Johnson, a junior transfer from Middle Tennessee State, was thrust into his first significant action of the season.

The ‘Cats are well versed in adjusting on the fly and made a number of emphatic statements in the opening minutes.

Northern Arizona received the opening kick and it appeared they were on their way to an early lead, as the ‘Jacks reached the Weber 35-yard line within two minutes. The Wildcats stout defense then gave an appetizer of what was to come during the entire game.

Sherwin Lavaka applied an immense amount of pressure on Wudtee, knocking him to the ground as he released the ball. The throw was acrobatically intercepted by Desmond Williams, who snagged it one-handed as his momentum carried him to the WSU sideline.

Despite facing a 79-yard field, Johnson wasted no time in getting the offense going. He ran for a pair of first downs, then hit Rashid Shaheed down the right side for a 44-yard touchdown, Johnson’s first scoring pass at the collegiate level since Nov. 17, 2018 when he was a member of Reedley College in California.

After a three-and-out, it was Josh Davis time. After rushing for a program record 328 yards the last time these teams met, Weber State’s star running back exploded for a 42-yard gain on the third play of the drive. With the Wildcats knocking on the door of another score, it was time for trickery.

Johnson dumped off a screen pass to Ty MacPherson, who immediately shoveled the ball to offensive lineman Noah Atagi, almost in hot potato style. The 305-pound sophomore snatched it and found the end zone for a five-yard touchdown, leading to many “big guy touchdown alert” jokes on social media, and more importantly helping Weber State to a 14-0 advantage.

The remainder of the first half was much more of a battle, as NAU settled into somewhat of a rhythm on both sides of the ball at times. Weber State only generated one first down over the course of their next five possessions while the ‘Jacks were able to chip away. A 12-play drive led to Northern Arizona getting on the board via field goal, then Draycen Hall burst through the middle for a 49-yard touchdown later in the second quarter.

The Lumberjacks had a chance for more right before halftime as they had inserted Jeff Widener at quarterback for rushing purposes, and he helped lead his team past midfield with less than a minute to play in the half. Enter Preston Smith to save the day, once again. The standout senior safety for the ‘Cats picked off Widener’s first pass attempt of the game. It was Smith’s second interception of the game after he previously did so on a trick play pass by NAU wide receiver Brandon Porter.

Weber State led by a slim 14-10 margin at halftime, but daytime fireworks were soon delivered for a crowd at Stewart Stadium that was just short of the capacity of 5,000 due to the pandemic.

Northern Arizona opted to kick to Rashid Shaheed to begin the second half, a decision they will likely stew over on their way back to Flagstaff. Shaheed caught the ball at the goal line and left the defense in a state of discombobulation by faking a lateral to Josh Davis. In reality, Shaheed kept the ball the entire time and only stopped running well after he reached the end zone. The 100-yard sprint was his fifth return for a touchdown in a Wildcat uniform, with multiple others having been called back due to penalties. Haze Hadley then rushed in for a successful two-point conversion, opening up a 12-point lead for Weber State.

The Wildcats had opportunities to create more separation between themselves and Northern Arizona, but an inability to hold onto the football kept them from doing so. NAU drove for a field goal following Shaheed’s return, then Johnson took the ‘Cats into the red zone only to throw an interception.

Still nursing a nine-point lead later in the third quarter, Dontae McMillan coughed up a fumble at the WSU 38-yard line. McMillan was injured on the play and did not return, and Luis Aguilar later converted his second field goal of the quarter to cut NAU’s deficit to 22-16.

For the second straight game, Weber State was pushed to the brink by a scrappy, inspired visiting opponent, and they had enough theatrics in store on Saturday to secure a tenth straight home victory.

The Wildcats will head south next weekend for the return of the Beehive Bowl, the annual meeting between Weber State and Southern Utah. Kickoff at Eccles Coliseum is set for 2 p.m. (MDT).

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Weber State Remains Undefeated After Thrilling Win Over NAU