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Brad Rock: Weber State finding its place in Utah's football landscape

Weber State head football coach Jay Hill.
Weber State head football coach Jay Hill.

OGDEN — Nobody was tailgating in the parking lot at Stewart Stadium on Thursday. No one was forming a line to buy tickets or setting up a tent. The grandstands sat empty, baking in the afternoon haze.

But if you ask Weber State football coach Jay Hill, it’s only a matter of time. He figures in three weeks the place will be a regular festival. Why shouldn’t it? After winning the Big Sky Conference last year, his Wildcats reached the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs — the deepest run in school history.

Take away three dreadful minutes against defending national champion James Madison and they might have gone all the way.

“It’s a bittersweet memory,” Hill said. “The run we made last year and having the chance to really prove we were one of the top five teams or so … that was sweet, no doubt about it.”

But missing out on the chance at a national championship was a punch in the kidneys.

“It’s now in the past,” Hill said. “As soon as fall camp comes, you start moving on to the next season.”

“Next season” begins Thursday at the University of Utah, so the Wildcats aren’t exactly putting a test toe in the water. They’re taking the plunge. This isn’t likely Utah’s best team in history, but it is picked second in the Pac-12 South. Hill knows what he’s facing. He coached at Utah for 13 seasons, played there two other years. If anyone can assess a power conference opponent, it’s him.

By all rights, Weber should be spending next Thursday rounding up body parts.

At the same time, he notes that last year’s team included Taron Johnson, a first-team All-American and fourth-round NFL draft pick of the Buffalo Bills.

“He could play anywhere in the country,” Hill said.

When it comes to breaking down the difference between big-school and small-school talent, he said, “With certain guys, there’s no difference at all. Then all of a sudden there are those couple of freaks that are unbelievable players — and Utah has some of those.”

Hill hasn’t been to Rice-Eccles Stadium since he took the job at Weber State after the 2013 season. He was part of the 2004 staff that guided the Utes to a Fiesta Bowl win; also a coach with the 2008 team that won the Sugar Bowl.

“Phenomenal teams,” he said.

“Having said that,” he continued, “I’ve seen that their talent as a team has gotten better and better the last couple of years, and everything I’ve been hearing about their team is great.”

Still, intimidation shouldn’t be a big part of Thursday’s game. That’s because practically everyone on the Weber coaching staff knows a ton about Utah. Eight coaches have ties to the team, either as players or coaches: Hill, Quinton Ganther, Joe Dale, Kite Afeaki, Dave Schramm, Grant Duff, Brent Myers and Al Pupunu. Meanwhile, with 49 Utahns on Weber’s roster, you might call the game a reunion.

This isn’t Weber’s first try at beating Utah.

Things haven’t gone well in previous visits to Salt Lake. Last time they met was in 2013, and that game ended in a 70-7 Utah win. In the four games played between the schools, just one has been decided by fewer than three touchdowns.

But comparing Utah and Weber is, in a way, irrelevant to both schools. Neither team will likely keep the other from its postseason aspirations. Hill has high expectations for the Wildcats. He believes there is a place for them in a football landscape that already has three FBS teams within 100 miles.

“Sure,” Hill said. “I love this place and I think the community has bought into this. Weber State was a hidden gem when I came here, and I knew it.”

Hill applauds the fan base, but the toughest sell has already occurred. WSU won its first conference championship since 2008 and second since 1968.

“It’s a great university,” Hill said, “in a great location with an international airport right by us, so we can recruit well and we travel well. There are so many things that help us to be great — and it should be great.”

It’s just that it might take more than one game to let it again shine through.