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Weber State’s season comes to a disappointing end in playoff loss to Southern Illinois

The Wildcats fell to the Salukis 34-31, after SIU scored the game-winning touchdown with 51 seconds remaining.

Souther Illinois Saluki wide receiver Branson Combs (83) celebrates his winning touchdown at Stewart Stadium in Ogden on Saturday, April 24, 2021.
Souther Illinois Saluki wide receiver Branson Combs (83) celebrates his winning touchdown at Stewart Stadium in Ogden on Saturday, April 24, 2021.
Annie Barker, Deseret News

Throughout the shortened 2020-21 regular season played this spring, Weber State football had always found a way to win.

The undefeated Wildcats, nicknamed the “Cardiac Cats,” won four of their five games by five points or less, coming through time and time again. There was the Hail Mary against NAU and the 10 unanswered fourth quarter points scored against Southern Utah. All but one win this year had called for a Wildcat rally, including the regular season finale against Idaho State that saw Weber State win its fourth straight Big Sky conference championship.

So when Southern Illinois scored a go-ahead touchdown with 51 seconds remaining Saturday afternoon at Stewart Stadium in the first round FCS playoffs, it almost felt fitting. Of course Weber State would have to rally in a late game situation to win. That was who the 2020-21 Wildcats are.

Only this time, the late-game heroics failed to make an appearance and the winning rally never materialized. As a result, Weber State lost to Southern Illinois 34-31 and the Wildcats’ season came to an end.

“You have to give a lot of credit to Southern Illinois,” Wildcats head coach Jay Hill said. “They fought, they clawed, they got down early... They are a tough team, well-coached, and this game comes to down they made a few more plays than we did. All respect to them. They played the game the right way today.”

No one more than quarterback Stone Labanowitz. The junior from Stewart, Florida, made play after play after play, especially down the stretch, helping the Salukis rally past the Wildcats.

The biggest play? That would be the game-winning 8-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Branson Combs, on 4th down no less.

“A lot of credit goes to that quarterback,” Hill said. “He made some huge plays. We had him running for his life most of the game. He ended up making a bunch of great plays with his legs and his arm.”

Early in the game, Weber State appeared to be far and away the better team. The Wildcats took an early 14-0 lead and the lead grew to 21-7 in the opening minutes of the second quarter. Labanowitz had thrown an interception and Weber State had dominated in nearly every statistical category.

Interceptions thrown by WSU quarterback Bronson Barron in Southern Illinois territory, not to mention a missed field goal by Kyle Thompson, proved the Wildcats undoing, though.

“That was everything,” Hill said. “There were three or four times, in my opinion, where we had chances to go up by two or three scores in the second half and we didn’t do it. This was a 14-point win if you take care of business down there. Even if you get two field goals out of that you win. That is an area where we’ve allowed teams to hang with us this year, because we have not been as consistent scoring touchdowns in the red zone as we needed to be.”

The Wildcats defense, after dominating early, also had its struggles, as Southern Illinois finished with 422 yards of total offense, 267 yards through the air and another 155 on the ground.

And then there was the way the defense played on what ended up being the game-winning touchdown.

“Our defense needs to get out of that last drive,” Hill said. “It is fourth and 7 and he (Labanowitz) flips one up to the corner of the end zone, almost a prayer, and they get answered. We have to get out of those drives and we have to score touchdowns when we are on offense. That was the game. They made a play when they needed to.”

And the Wildcats season came to an early end.

“It is very disappointing,” linebacker Connor Mortensen said. “Obviously we would have preferred to win. It breaks our hearts to fall at this stage because we wanted to go further. But like Coach (Hill) said, they (Southern Illinois) played really good. They made plays when we didn’t and it cost us. In the end, I am grateful we were able to play this spring and that we had this opportunity and we are focused on coming back in the fall and being even better.”

Weber State opens the 2021-22 season on September 2 at the University of Utah.