MISSOULA, Mont. — No player epitomized the 2008 Weber State Wildcats quite like defensive tackle Derek Johnson.
So after he had both of his surgically repaired knees wrapped with ice following the Wildcats' disappointing 24-13 loss to Montana in the Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinals on Saturday afternoon, it was fitting that he summed up how his team was feeling better than anyone could have imagined.
Weber State had arguably its best football season in school history. The Wildcats won 10 games for just the second time in the program's history, and earned a share of the conference title for the first time in 21 years. Their quarterfinal game on Saturday was just the second time they had reached this deep into the playoffs in the 47-year history of the program.
There were plenty of accomplishments to be proud of, and the Wildcats will feel that way — some day.
"It's mixed emotions," Johnson said. "I mean, it's tough. For us seniors, it feels we like left our mark and set the bar pretty high. But at the same time, it still sucks. Maybe come Monday or Tuesday, it's not going to suck as bad, but it sucks right now for sure."
Advancing as far as they did, and losing to a hated rival like Montana, was obviously a bitter pill for the Wildcats to swallow on Saturday.
Weber State fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter following two costly turnovers. Fumbles by quarterback Cameron Higgins and tight end Cody Nakamura forced the Wildcats to play from behind almost from the opening whistle. To their credit, the Wildcats did just that, and in the fourth quarter they had a real shot at beating Montana for the second time this season.
Trailing 17-10, Weber State drove from its own 19-yard line to Montana's 11 in just seven plays. Higgins completed his first three throws during the series, and running back Trevyn Smith was gashing the Grizzlies' defense on running and passing plays. The drive, however, stalled after Higgins had two passes deflected, and a 6-yard pass from Higgins to Tim Toone fell short of a first down.
Weber State still kicked a field goal to only trail 17-13 with 9:17 remaining, but it wouldn't get the ball again with the game still being a one-score contest.
"We're kind of disappointed," safety Scotty Goodloe said. "We didn't play as good as we know we can. We expected to go to the championship (game) and we didn't want to settle for less. We knew this was a tough place to play, and we didn't play to the best of our abilities."
A big momentum-changer occurred on the ensuing kickoff. The Wildcats stopped the Grizzlies at their own 11-yard line, but Taylor Sedillo was flagged for a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty after the play was over. The penalty seemed to give new life to Montana's offense, which had scored three points on its previous five possessions.
"Football is a game of momentum," Weber State coach Ron McBride said. "That 15-yard roughness penalty changed the whole momentum back. That's a huge play. But there's a lot of plays in the game that make a difference, and I don't want to blame it (the loss) on one situation."
The Grizzlies then put the game away with an 11-play scoring drive in which running back Chase Reynolds and the Montana offensive line imposed their will on Weber State's defense. Reynolds rushed for 37 of his 185 yards during the series, and he scored on a 13-yard run with 4:02 left in the game.
Quarterback Cole Bergquist had a 14-yard run on a third-and-7 play from the Wildcats' 31-yard line to keep the scoring drive alive.
"We couldn't get a stop," Goodloe said. "We just couldn't execute. I take my hat off to them. They played a good game, schemed us well, and we couldn't get out on third down and we couldn't force any turnovers."
Reynolds only rushed for 40 yards on 12 carries the first time the two teams played. He was a completely different runner on Saturday, as he averaged 5.6 yards per carry against the Wildcats. Montana rushed for a total of 314 yards.
"They did a good job of getting to the edge particularly," McBride said. "They did a good job of knocking a hole in our defense. There's no genius thing they did. They just blocked and we didn't get off the blocks."
Smith had a huge game for the Wildcats, as he rushed for 104 yards on 19 carries. He also caught seven passes for 129 yards. The biggest play he made was when he took a short dump-off from Higgins, and then gained 62 yards early in the second quarter. Weber State trailed 14-0 at the time, and the play set up the Wildcats' first score.
The Grizzlies were a much better team on Saturday than they were when the two teams clashed in Ogden in October. Bergquist was only sacked once on Saturday, compared to seven times in the first meeting between the two teams. The Grizzlies had no turnovers in the quarterfinal matchup, compared to four in October.
This time, it was the Wildcats who made the costly mistakes, and the difference in losing this game is that it ended Weber State's dream season.
"I think it (Montana) was the same team," Johnson said. "They just made more plays than we did. The turnovers killed us, and we couldn't make the plays on defense. It all comes down to they made the plays and we didn't."