OGDEN — Playing against an unconventional offensive philosophy, the No. 3-seeded Weber State Wildcats overcame an early deficit to prevail 26-20 over Kennesaw State in the second round of the FCS playoffs.

It was the first playoff game of the championship bracket for the Wildcats, who earned a first-round bye with their Big Sky Conference championship performance during the regular season.

“We keep them interesting,” Weber State head coach Jay Hill said with a laugh after the game, which saw the Wildcats come back after trailing at halftime. “I thought the players caught their breath at halftime and just came out in the second half.”

The second-round action started slowly as both teams traded field goals in the first quarter. At the 11:21 mark of the second, Kennesaw State found the end zone on a 8-yard rush by quarterback Jonathan Murphy that capped off an extremely long drive by the Owls.

Working much more rapidly, the Wildcats responded with a touchdown on a 21-yard pass from Jake Constantine to Devon Cooley on their next turn with the ball. Weber State went for the two-point conversion and failed to set the score at 10-9 with a little less than nine minutes remaining in the half.

The Owls took a 17-9 advantage with four minutes remaining on a read option pass from Murphy to TJ Reed from 10 yards out. The play was the first of only two pass completions in the game for Kennesaw State. Murphy finished with 116 yards on the ground on 30 rushing attempts and went just 2-for-8 for 23 yards through the air.

Prior to the end of the first half, the Wildcats booted another field goal to narrow the gap to 17-12 for Kennesaw State.

Early in the second half, the tides turned for Weber State when the Owls committed a rare fumble on an option pitch. Adam Rodriguez scooped up the loose ball and ran it back 24 yards to the house to give the Wildcats their first lead of the game at 19-17 with 13:32 to go in the third quarter.

Weber State stretched the lead to 26-17 in the third quarter when Josh David punched the pigskin into the end zone on a 2-yard rush. After being held without a score in the penultimate quarter, the Owls nailed a field goal with 8:31 remaining in the game to make it a 26-20 game but could not come any closer to overtaking the Wildcats. 

“We’re battle-tested,” said head coach Jay Hill after the game. “We knew this game was going to be like this.”

Coming into the contest it was expected that the Wildcats would have their hands full with the Kennesaw State offense, which primarily runs the triple option and boasted the nation’s top rushing attack. Hill commented after Thursday’s practice that the scout team wouldn’t be able to simulate the speed of their opponent’s attack, making assignment-sound football paramount during game action.

The challenge was immediately evident as the Wildcats gave up 216 rushing yards in the first half after allowing just 107.2 yards on the ground per game for the entire season. However, the Owls’ attack was stifled in the second half as they picked up just 69 rushing yards in the third and fourth quarters.

In the victory, Wildcat receivers Cooley and David Ames were stellar with more than 100 yards each. Cooley had 114 to Ames’ 105. On the defensive end, linebacker Conner Mortensen shined with 15 tackles, 14 of which were unassisted.

With Saturday’s win over Kennesaw State, the Wildcats will play in the quarterfinals of the FCS Playoffs for the third straight season. Weber State has never advanced to the semifinals of the postseason tournament but will have the opportunity to do so against conference rival Montana on Dec. 13, with kickoff set for 8 p.m. MT in Ogden.

On whether the team is excited for a rematch with Montana, which defeated Weber State 35-16 on Nov. 16 and gave the Wildcats their lone Big Sky loss of the season, Mortensen answered affirmatively. 

“Absolutely,” Mortensen said. “That’s what we wanted.”