OGDEN — There's a growing glimmer of hope for the Weber State football team.
Oh, sure, the Wildcats are still winless (0-4) in the 2012 collegiate campaign following Saturday night's disappointing 32-26 defeat against Eastern Washington University in WSU's annual Homecoming game at Stewart Stadium.
But with the way Weber State battled back after trailing 20-3 at halftime against the Eagles — ranked No. 9 in last week's Football Championship Subdivision national polls — and then falling behind 32-19 midway through the fourth quarter before driving to midfield in the final minute with a possible chance to pull out their first victory of the season, the Wildcats couldn't help but be encouraged about their prospects the rest of the way.
"We had the momentum; we were just too inconsistent tonight," said WSU junior linebacker Anthony Morales, who had a career-best 16 tackles in the loss. "And I think that's been the story of this season so far — the little things, missing plays here and there, giving up a big play — but we've been (right) there the whole year. We need to learn to play the full four quarters.
"This is the No. 9 team in the country; that's a really good team out there, defending national champs two years ago, so they play some good ball. We proved that we can play with anybody, just like we have these last four games. It's just about being consistent and doing the little things right, every play. I know that we can beat everybody that we play, we've just got to keep working hard. It's the little things — every play counts.
"It's hard, but we have to move forward from here," Morales said. "And if we win seven straight games, we will be in the playoffs in the conference that we're in. We know that we have all the goals ahead of us that we want ... and we're going to keep getting better, I know that."
Eastern Washington (2-1, 1-0 Big Sky) threw the Wildcats a bit of a curveball by starting cat-quick freshman quarterback Vernon Adams, who threw for 75 yards and ran for 62 more in leading the Eagles to a 20-3halftime lead, fueled by a couple of short rushing touchdowns by Jordan Talley.
"We had an idea that he might be playing," Morales said of Adams, "so we had him in our mind but we didn't think that he was gonna start. ... This guy was just shifty, shifty, and he had quite a few big runs in that first half that killed us."
Then in the second half, EWU switched signal-callers and inserted junior QB Kyle Padron, who had taken almost all the snaps in the Eagles' first two games, into the lineup. Padron threw for 149 yards and a touchdown in the second half, and Jimmy Pavel kicked four short field goals — two in each half — to help Eastern Washington take the lead and never relinquish it in the two teams' Big Sky Conference opener.
"I've been impressed by Vernon (Adams) ever since he stepped on campus last year when he was running the scout offense," said EWU coach Beau Baldwin.
"So this has been something that I haven't talked about in public a lot, but it's been more of a battle than most people really think.
"I was proud of both QBs tonight. Obviously Vernon did some great things in the first half and then he was fighting cramps and some things in the second half and then Kyle (Padron) stepped in and made a lot of huge throws. ... This is a very good football team we just beat here. Any time you find a way to end on the road and get it done, it's huge."
Senior quarterback Mike Hoke almost brought the Wildcats back, however.
Weber State, which has been outscored by a whopping 79-6 margin combined in the first halves of its first four games, climbed back into contention when Hoke hit Lanny Papanikolas on a 28-yard touchdown pass — the first TD of Papanikolas' collegiate career — early in the third quarter.
That score was set up by an interception by Wildcat cornerback Kela Marciel, who also threw a two-point conversion pass to — what's this? — defensive end Trevor Pletcher after WSU's C.J. Tuckett scored on a 1-yard touchdown plunge in the fourth quarter.
That made it 29-19 and, after Pavel's fourth field goal pushed the Eagles' lead to 32-19, Hoke struck again on an 18-yard TD toss to Erik Walker with 3:43 to play. Shaun McClain, whose 44-yard field goal provided Weber's only first-half points, tacked on the PAT to make it 32-26, and the 'Cats still had a chance.
But after Weber's defense held and got the ball back for the offense, Hoke, who completed 17-of-34 passes for 249 yards and two TDs — several other catchable passes were dropped by his receivers — and rushed for another 50 yards, was stripped of the ball near midfield as the Wildcats were driving for a potential go-ahead score in the final minute. It was eerily similar to the way the Wildcats lost to the Eagles last year at Cheney, Wash.
"As far as that last drive, everybody knew we was going to do it, everybody knew we was going to win," said Weber State sophomore wide receiver Xavian Johnson, who had six catches for a career-high 133 yards. "We had it, we had it in us. We do it in practice every day. We had it in us. We were too inconsistent and made too many mistakes."
WSU's interim head coach Jody Sears refused to be discouraged by the defeat or his team's 0-4 overall, 0-1 Big Sky start.
"I really like the way our leaders took control of that locker room at halftime," he said. "It was awesome, absolutely awesome. I don't know that I said maybe five or six words. It was all about the attitude and the energy, and I'm really pleased with the way they came back in that second half and attacked it.
"We've got to take this and learn from it and get better. ... We've got to take the positives and build on it, and take the deficiencies and make it a strength, take the weaknesses and make it a strength. ... We're not going to sweep stuff under the carpet, we're going to attack it head-on."