Big Sky champs SUU, Weber St. to clash

(STATS) – This weekend, conference championship games dominate the FBS landscape with teams vying for an elusive spot in the CFP.

In the FCS, the playoffs commence without conference title games, but the Big Sky co-champions have an opportunity to determine an outright winner with in-state rivals Southern Utah and Weber State squaring off in the second round of the playoffs.

The 12th-ranked Thunderbirds (9-2) and No. 11 Wildcats (10-2) each went 7-1 in the Big Sky, but Southern Utah claimed the league title and automatic bid to the playoffs thanks to a 32-16 upset win at then-No. 18 Weber State on Oct. 14.

The Wildcats haven’t lost since, extending their winning streak to six with last Saturday’s 21-19 win over Western Illinois in the first round.

The Thunderbirds have been even hotter, winning their last seven while scoring 47, 47 and 48 in their final three games.

Southern Utah kept the Weber State offense out of the end zone to win the Beehive Bowl trophy 1 1/2 months ago, but Wildcats senior quarterback Stefan Cantwell is currently playing some of his best football.

During the win streak, Cantwell has thrown for 1,214 yards with 14 TDs to four interceptions and has two running scores and one TD reception. Last week, the first-year starter had his fourth three-touchdown game to lead Weber State to its first home playoff win.

“They’re moving some guys around a little bit more than they did earlier in the season,” said Southern Utah’s Demario Warren, the Big Sky Coach of the Year. “Cantwell is obviously playing at a high level right now, and they’re mixing their backs up well.”

Other than Cantwell keeping the ball to himself for 40 runs in the last three weeks, the carries have been about as evenly distributed as you can get between Weber State’s top three backs. Freshman David Jones and sophomore Kevin Smith have each carried the ball 26 times, with Jones at 7.2 yards per attempt with two TDs and Smith averaging 9.8 yards and totaling three scores. Junior Treshawn Garrett has one fewer carry than the two underclassmen and is at 6.2 yards per rush with three scores.

Southern Utah smothered the trio back in October, however, limiting them to 48 yards – 2.5 per attempt – with Jones carrying the ball seven times and Smith and Garrett six each.

Led by senior cornerback Taron Johnson – the Big Sky defensive player of the year – Weber State’s defense has been one of the best in the FCS since returning from its bye to face Southern Utah. In their seven games since Oct. 14, no team has more takeaways than the Wildcats’ 18. They forced a fumble and picked off Patrick Tyler once in the October matchup.

“Defensively, they’re mixing in some zone more often and doing some things with their front that’s a little different,” Warren said. “But for the most part I think we’re the same team and they’re the same team, and it’s just going to come down to who’s able to execute.”

The Thunderbirds have struggled with their execution at times, but have been able to overcome their 16 turnovers in their last nine games. Tyler threw three touchdowns to go with the interception in the first meeting, and has 20 TD passes on the season but also has a Big Sky-high 12 interceptions.

Their ground attack has eclipsed 200 yards rushing in four of the last six games, and in the last three contests, James Felila has run for 296 yards and three touchdowns while Janiero Green has rushed for 260 and eight scores.

Playing more than a mile above sea level in Cedar City, the Thunderbirds have one of the biggest home-field advantages in the FCS, having won 14 of 15 games at Eccles Coliseum since 2015. The lone blemish, however, came at the hands of Weber State last October, when the Wildcats scored 23 unanswered fourth-quarter points to rally for a 37-36 win. That also marks Weber State’s only victory in the last five matchups.

Southern Utah has set two attendance records this season and Warren envisions another raucous atmosphere.

“It’s going to be nuts,” he said. “I’m expecting to see this whole place filled up to more than full capacity and I’m hoping for 11,000 at least.”