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Weber State nearly knocks off defending champs, falls short in final second

The playoffs are a time when teams rely on their strengths, their toughness and their ability to rise against adversity. In a game that was supposed to be an easy win for the James Madison University Dukes, the Weber State University Wildcats scratched, snarled and fought their way to the final second of the game, tied 28–28, with the Dukes lining up to kick a 46-yard game-winning field goal.

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Duke's kicker Ethan Ratke during the game-winning field goal. (Joshua Wineholt / The Signpost)

WSU played against the defending national champions 2,000 miles away from home in front of over 13,000 opposing fans, but that didn’t stop them from putting their dukes up and taking James Madison down to the wire.

Weber State struck early with an interception just four plays into the game. WSU senior cornerback Xequille Harry picked off the ball and ran it back 40 yards before being tackled four yards shy of the goal line. The Wildcats capitalized just two plays later on an outside run by Kevin Smith to take the quick lead.

Those would end up being all the points the WSU offense produced in the first half.

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'Cats receiver Rashid Shaheed, center fights to break the hold of Duke's cornerback Jimmy Moreland. (Joshua Wineholt / The Signpost)

Yards told a different story than the scoreboard in the first half. Weber posted only 40 total yards of offense in the first half, compared to 284 from the JMU Dukes. A key second quarter stop on fourth down by the WSU defense deep in their own territory helped keep the Wildcats in the game.

At the end of the half, Harry had yet another opportunity at a game-changing play when he blocked a Dukes field goal and returned it 60 yards for a touchdown to end the half. The points were negated by a holding penalty that was called away from the ball during the return. The teams entered the locker room at halftime with James Madison leading 10–7.

“Knowing that their defense is one of the best in the country, I wanted to help our offense out as much as possible,” Harry said. “Coach (Hill) set me up in a position to make that play, and when plays come, you have to make them.

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(Joshua Wineholt / The Signpost)

This was the first meeting between the two teams, both of whom rode record-winning streaks into Harrisonburg. The Wildcats came into this game on a record-breaking single season win streak of seven straight games, and the Dukes posted a record 24 straight wins over the past two seasons. James Madison’s winning streak that now stretches 25 games is the longest active win-streak in Division 1 NCAA football.

Quarterback Bryan Schor became the all-time leading passer in James Madison history during the game. He threw a game total 359 yards.

JMU’s Andrew Ankrah was voted a top-three finalist for the STATS FCS Buck Buchanan award, the top defensive award in the league. Ankrah and the rest of the James Madison defense kept the Wildcats on a tight leash in the first half, allowing them to convert just one of seven third downs.

Weber State gained only two first downs in the first half, and their game total of 11 was nowhere near JMU’s 26, but the Wildcats remained in the game anyway.

Weber broke open their largest play of the game, with 7:13 to play in the third quarter, when senior quarterback Stefan Cantwell connected with Kevin Smith for an 81-yard touchdown reception, giving the Wildcats a 14–10 lead. That marked the first time all season the Dukes trailed that late in a game.

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WSU linebacker Landon Stice, center-right, braces for impact with JMU running back Marcus Marshall. (Joshua Wineholt / The Signpost)

Points were at a premium going in the fourth quarter, and James Madison picked up the check first with a two-play touchdown drive to gain the lead. Both teams made up for the defensive battle from the previous three quarters, scoring a combined 35 points to finish out the game.

Weber put up 178 yards of offense in the final quarter, including a pair of 36-yard passes to senior Drew Batchelor. The first took the Wildcats to the five yard line and ended in a Cantwell touchdown, and the second was a touchdown pass to a double-covered Batchelor. JMU responded with their own touchdowns, one on the ground and one in the air. Those, paired with a 40-yard field goal and a two point conversion, tied the game at 28–28 with 2:08 to play in the game.

Weber was forced to punt, and the Dukes mounted a last-ditch drive that culminated in a 46-yard game-winning field goal, a record for redshirt freshman kicker Ethan Ratke.

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(Joshua Wineholt / The Signpost)

Hill said this loss hurts, but he is proud of his team and the way they stepped up to the plate. He commented that he was proud of how his team adapted as they returned from the locker room in the second half.

“We came out and played an outstanding 27 minutes of the second half. We just came up a few minutes short,” Hill said.

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(Joshua Wineholt / The Signpost)

They may have come up short on the scoreboard, but the Wildcats proved that no matter who they are playing or where they are, they won’t go down easy.

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(Joshua Wineholt / The Signpost)
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(Joshua Wineholt / The Signpost)
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(Joshua Wineholt / The Signpost)
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(Joshua Wineholt / The Signpost)
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(Joshua Wineholt / The Signpost)

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