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5 reasons to watch Weber State vs. James Madison

Weber State faces James Madison in a game that pits two top 10 FCS programs.
Weber State Wildcats wide receiver Rashid Shaheed (22) scores on a kickoff return during the season opener at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. Shaheed and the Wildcats face James Madison this weekend in a game that pits two top 10 FCS programs.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Weber State knows how to throw a home opener party — find a high-profile opponent, roll with some eye-catching threads and invite all your friends.

Now, the Wildcats are pinning their hopes on a statement being made and having something to celebrate come late Saturday night.

Weber State, ranked No. 9 in the latest Stats Perform FCS Top 25 poll, will host No. 3 James Madison in the Wildcats’ home opener at Stewart Stadium on Saturday (6 p.m. MDT, KJZZ and ESPN +). It’s the blackout game in Ogden, as Weber State will don its all-black jerseys for the high-profile matchup.

The game even captured ESPN’s attention, as Bill Connelly listed the contest as one to “pay attention to” this weekend.

“Weber State played a run of wild, close games in the spring FCS season. Might we see another one on Saturday night? Or is James Madison — which has beaten its first two opponents by a combined 123-17 — too good?” Connelly wrote.

Need more proof it’s worth keeping an eye on? Here’s five reasons to watch Weber State vs. James Madison.

A nonconference matchup of top 10 teams

Hero Sports’ Sam Herder called the game “the biggest FCS nonconference game of the season,” and for good reason. It’s rare to have the opportunity for two top 10 teams to meet in nonconference play, and James Madison is taking its longest road trip in school history — more than 2,000 miles separate the two schools — just for the matchup.

The third-ranked Dukes will be the highest-ranked opponent to visit Ogden since No. 1 North Dakota State did so in 2014. That ended up a 24-7 loss for Weber State, though most expect Saturday’s game to be much more competitive.

FCS playoff implications?

Both Weber State and James Madison have lengthy FCS playoff streaks going — the Wildcats have made the postseason the past five seasons, while the Dukes have made the playoffs seven straight times.

Saturday’s winner will get the inside track to a high seed — in the FCS playoffs, the top eight in the 24-team field are seeded — while the loser will have some ground to make up during league play, though both are expected to make the field this year.

James Madison is no stranger to big games — the Dukes have advanced to the national championship game three of the past five FCS seasons, winning it in 2016 — while for Weber State, a win would earn them a chance to get involved in the national championship discussion.

Herder released a FCS playoffs bracketology on Hero Sports earlier this week, and both Weber State and James Madison earned top eight seeds in the projection, with the Wildcats at No. 8 and the Dukes at No. 3.

James Madison quarterback Cole Johnson (12) throws a pass during the first half against Morehead State in an NCAA college football game in Harrisonburg, Va., Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.
Daniel Lin, Daily News-Record via Associated Press

The quarterback matchup: Johnson vs. Johnson

Sixth-year senior quarterback Cole Johnson is leading a James Madison offense that has averaged 61.5 points through its first two games, second nationally. Johnson has been efficient, completing 44 of 58 passes (75.8%) for 677 yards, nine touchdowns and no interceptions.

Matching the Dukes score for score will likely land on quarterback Randall Johnson, a Middle Tennessee State transfer who took over for an injured Bronson Barron last week against Dixie State. Barron’s injury was to his MCL, the Standard-Examiner reported, and while Weber State coach Jay Hill wouldn’t rule Barron out for Saturday, Johnson showed he was capable of subbing in. He led the Wildcats on three second-half touchdown drives against the Trailblazers and completed 5 of 8 passes for 89 yards while also rushing for 31.

There’s a bit of history between these schools

The Wildcats have a brief though interesting history against each other. The first time the two teams met, Weber State faced the No. 1 seed James Madison on the road in the FCS quarterfinals back in 2017. The Wildcats took a 28-20 lead with 3:06 to play on a Drew Batchelor 36-yard touchdown catch, but the defending national champion Dukes rallied. It started with a 40-yard touchdown reception by Riley Stapleton just over a minute later, and after James Madison converted a two-point attempt to tie it, the Dukes won on an Ethan Ratke 46-yard field goal as time expired.

“This one hurts and it will hurt for a while,” Hill said at the time. “It was a hard-fought game and I’m so proud of our effort, we just came up a little short against a great football team.”

Two years later, the stakes were raised when Weber State and James Madison met again, this time in the FCS semifinals. It was the Wildcats’ first trip to the national semifinals, and this time the Dukes were in control for much of the game. Weber State, the No. 3 seed, fell behind 10-0 after one quarter and 24-7 at halftime to the second-seeded Dukes, who eventually won 30-14. James Madison finished national runner-up that season, losing 28-20 to North Dakota State in the FCS national championship game.

There’s still a handful of players that remain from that first meeting in 2017 — there are a combined 15 players still on the Weber State and James Madison rosters from that game, according to Athlon Sports. That includes the Dukes’ kicker, Ratke, and Weber State return specialist Rashid Shaheed.

Weber State’s Dontae McMillan (28) runs with the ball during the Wildcats’ 41-3 win over Dixie State on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in St. George. McMillan ran for 151 yards and a touchdown in the victory that gave Jay Hill 53 wins as the Wildcats’ head coach.
Weber State Athletics

Jay Hill chasing history

With his next win, Hill will become the winningest coach in Weber State history. The eighth-year head coach caught Dave Arslanian when Hill won his 53rd game as Weber State’s coach last week, when the Wildcats beat Dixie State 41-3. Arslanian was 53-47 in his nine seasons as Weber State’s head coach from 1989-97, while Hill has gone 53-32 after taking over in 2014.

Hill has guided Weber State to five of its nine FCS playoff appearances, while also winning four straight Big Sky Conference championships. The Wildcats were also picked by both the media and coaches to win the Big Sky this season.