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FCS playoffs: Weber State seeks redemption in rematch against Bobcats

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By Tom Stuber SKYLINE SPORTS

You’ve heard the line, “If they made a movie about this, no one would believe it because it’s too far-fetched.”

That notion certainly applies to the last meeting between Montana State and Weber State just five weeks ago in Bozeman.

Certainly, things will be different at Bobcat Stadium this Saturday when the two teams meet in the second round of the FCS playoffs. How couldn’t they be? The 43-38 Bobcat victory was one of the wildest in stadium history and perhaps the craziest game in the Big Sky or the FCS this season.

To put it into perspective, Tommy Mellott set a single-game record for rushing yards by a Big Sky Conference quarterback with 273 yards on the ground…and that was far down the list of crazy occurrences that afternoon.

On that rainy day on October 22 at Bobcat Stadium, MSU quarterback Tommy Mellott threw his first interception against an FCS team on his first pass of the game. The miscue came on just the game’s third play and WSU quickly cashed in on it with a field goal.

WSU cornerback Eddie Heckard, a three-time first-team All-Big Sky selection, and the Weber defense entered the game with a reputation as a nasty, ball-hawking unit. Many wondered if the early pick was a sign of things to come.

Shortly after that turnover, Weber’s long snapper Grant Sands sent the ball over punter Jack Burgess’ head and nearly into the student section. Those in attendance brushed it off as a fluke caused by the wet conditions. The Bobcats then scored on a 42-yard TD run by Mellott on their possession after the safety to go up 9-3.

Linebacker Danny Uluilakepa celebrates the first of four safeties. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

Unfazed WSU’s Abraham Williams, who has an NCAA record four 100-yard kickoff returns this season, ran the ensuing kickoff back 100 yards for a touchdown and a 10-9 lead.

After a short series, MSU sent Bryce Leighton out to punt the ball away and lightning struck again, this time in the form of Hudson Schenck, who brought it back 91 yards to paydirt for the Wildcats and put them up 17-9 with the game still in the first quarter. In less than 14 minutes four things you rarely see – Mellott’s interception, a safety, a kickoff return TD and a punt return TD – had all occurred.

The stunned Bobcats couldn’t get anything going on offense on their next possession and this time WSU proceeded to – somewhat more methodically and definitely more traditionally – march for another score on a six play, 70-yard drive.

Now trailing 24-9 early in the second quarter, the Bobcats needed to come up with an answer lest they find themselves on the wrong side of a rout. Although Weber had all the momentum and 24 points, the Wildcats had only possessed the ball for less than four minutes to that point.

The Bobcats drove deep into Weber State territory only to see a false start force them into a field goal attempt. Blake Glessner’s kick, however, was blocked – for the first time in his college career – and MSU now found itself running on vapors.

“I definitely think about the special teams,” MSU tight end Treyton Pickering, who also plays on special teams, said in reflecting back on the game. “The blocked field goal was my guy. We’re really trying to hone in on that. Giving up two returns, you’re not going to be winning too many games doing that. I felt our return coverage hadn’t been great, but since then it has been.”

Pickering fights for extra yards against Weber in October. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

The Bobcat’ defense stepped up on the following WSU possession and forced a punt. After seeing the ball snapped through the end zone earlier, the last thing anyone was expecting was for that to happen again. Sure enough, Sands sent another ball over his punter’s head and out of the end zone. And like they did when that happened before, the Bobcats marched right back into the Weber end zone to cut the lead down to 24-18 with 2:34 to go in the half.

The Bobcat’ defense would force another three-and-out as the offense was poised to take the field again to possibly re-take the lead. MSU got more than it was asking for as, yet again, Sands snapped the ball over the punter’s head for the third time and once again it skidded out of the end zone for a surreal third safety.

Reporters in the press box scrambled to look up the most peculiar of statistics: what was the all-time record for snaps out of the back of the end-zone for safeties? Surely, Sands was getting close.

MSU still had time to get in the end zone but sputtered on three plays and sent Leighton out to punt. Leighton’s long snapper, Tommy Sullivan, was noticeably on target with his snap, but more importantly hustled downfield after doing so.  The effort paid big dividends as Schenck — moments earlier, a hero — mishandled the punt and Sullivan pounced on it at the Weber State 15-yard line. One play later, Mellott found tight end Derryk Snell in the front corner of the end zone for a touchdown and somehow MSU found itself with a 27-24 halftime lead.

Weber took the second half kickoff but may not have wanted to after getting a first down and then needing to send the punt unit and, more hesitantly, long snapper back onto the field.

By now fans were on the edge of their seats in high anticipation of what is typically one of the most mundane activities in a football game and as he had all game, Sands did what had been previously unthinkable. He sent a fourth snap out of the end zone. The Bobcats now led 29-24 and were set to get the ball.

For the fourth time following safeties, MSU pierced through the Wildcat’ defense when Mellott, who would finish with a Big Sky Conference quarterback rushing record of 273 yards, sprinted down the left sideline for a 36-yard touchdown and a 36-24 lead.

Mellott rolls out in the second half against Weber on Oct. 22. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

The Wildcats were forced to punt again the second time they had it in the half and this time subbed Sands out of the game. The snap went high again but was playable for Burgess, who got it off in time. The Bobcat’ offense was in high gear by now and ate up nearly six minutes en route to a one-yard score by senior captain fullback RJ Fitzgerald.

Ahead 43-24 on the heals of a 34-0 scoring run, the game seemed well in hand late in the third quarter. Not on this day. The previous activity should’ve been all anyone needed to see if they thought this game was not going to go quietly into the night.

As soon as you could say WSU’s Ty McPherson caught a touchdown pass from quarterback Bronson Barron, WSU’s Ty McPherson caught a touchdown pass from Bronson Barron and the Wildcats tacked on a 2-point conversion before the third quarter ended and it was suddenly a 43-32 game.

The Bobcats were threatening to salt the game away after driving into the Weber’ red zone. A second-and-4 from the Weber 16 seemed like a gimme for MSU’s efficient and effective run game. That second-and-4 turned into third-and-3, which became fourth-and-1 and when the Wildcats stopped Lane Sumner with 12:35 still remaining on the clock Bobcat Stadium got tense.

The Wildcats wasted little time taking advantage of the situation. They would only face third down twice and Barron punched in a one-yard score to cut the lead down to 43-38 with plenty of time (6:49) to play. MSU would manage a pair of first downs and worked the clock down to 2:07 but would have to kick the ball away.

Leighton punted the ball all the way down to the Weber 10-yard line and out of bounds as the Wildcats now faced 90 yards between them and victory. They would be forced into fourth-and-10 situations twice by a stiffening Bobcat’ defense but wiggled their way out of those spots with completions of 24 and 15 yards by Barron.

A sack by MSU’s Callahan O’Reilly seem fortuitous for the Bobcats, however, it turned a third-and-5 into another fourth-and-10, and after seeing WSU convert on the exact same down and distance two times on the drive, it seemed the Wildcats were destined to do it again. They had the right play call, and the pass was on the money, but McPherson broke one of the golden rules of receiving when he turned his head to either look downfield or spot a pursuing defender. The brief lapse caused the ball to slip through his hands and just before he could collect himself the pigskin had touched the turf and MSU was in victory formation moments later.

Sophomore defensive tackle Sebastian Valdez fights through a hold to pressure the Weber quarterback. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

Of course, national media would pick up on the four safeties off the horrendous snaps, but the game had all kinds of twists and turns. MSU committed six false starts and allowed two special team returns. WSU receivers dropped at least six passes and muffed a punt return to go along with the long snapping circus. Coaches on both sides could easily get caught up in all of that, but it’s more likely that Weber State will be more concerned with its inability to stop Montana State or generate any offense from the time it took a 24-9 lead to when it fell behind 43-24. And the Bobcats will be dissecting how it nearly gave all of that back after their dominating stretch that saw them gain 250 yards on 35 plays, while holding the Wildcats to just 46 yards on 21 plays.

Despite all that, and despite the way the 2021 game – where nearly the complete opposite played out in a 13-7 MSU win that featured stagnant offenses and stifling defenses – played out, this next game will probably be completely different from either of them.

For one thing, the weather is expected to be much better. Instead of a game time temp of 44 and a steady rain and soaked field, Saturday is expected to be in the high 20s with partly cloudy skies and minimal chance of precipitation.

Another reason is WSU has had All-America running back Josh Davis on the field for the past two games (he’s run for 209 yards on 30 carries and two touchdowns since returning) and MSU has gotten backup quarterback Sean Chambers (18 carries, 86 yards, one touchdown last game) on the field after a three-game hiatus and its own All-America running back, Isaiah Ifanse, will be in action for the first time this season.

Throw in the fact that it’s a win-or-go-home playoff game and that both teams are probably wondering how two teams from the same conference that are at least in the top nine teams in the nation ended up playing each other so early – the round of 16 teams – in the FCS playoffs is even happening

Then again, probably just because, that’s football and all games seemingly take on a mind of their own.

Although he was speaking solely about the Bobcats, MSU head coach Brent Vigen was putting things in perspective for both teams to wrap up his Monday press conference as he talked about the difference in winning a game like the one coming up is all about.

“You just want to make sure you – through the week of preparation, in this case two weeks – you leave no stone unturned,” he said. “You don’t have any regrets as far as your preparation. You certainly don’t have any regrets as far as your effort on Saturday. If you can play that way and you can think that way, you like to think that the score will take of itself. If you don’t do this and you don’t do that, and then Saturday the result isn’t what you wanted, then you have some real challenges. So, really focus on our process and our preparation, and don’t get caught up in the what-ifs and just go out and play the best you can and leave it all out there.”

You could easily hear WSU head coach Jay Hill saying the same thing.

The Bobcats host Weber State this Saturday at 1 p.m. at Bobcat Stadium.

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