Belying its standing as the last place team in the Big Sky Conference, winless Weber State (0-7 overall, 0-3 in Big Sky) actually features three of the best offensive players in the league, all ranking within the top five players at their respective positions.
WSU quarterback Billy Green is fifth in the Big Sky in passing, completing almost 61 percent of his throws (163-for-268) and averaging 238.9 yards per contest with nine touchdown passes and six interceptions.
However, an element of intrigue was introduced in the fourth quarter of last week’s 23-13 loss at Montana State when backup Jadrian Clark took the controls of the WSU offense and guided the Wildcats to 10 late points. On his first possession, Clark led Weber State on an 8-play, 66-yard drive that ended with a field goal. Later, he led WSU on a 6-play, 61-yard drive culminating in a touchdown run.
Green was 19-of-29 passing for 205 yards with one interception at Montana State, while Clark was 6-of-10 passing for 142 yards in his first appearance of the season.
“Billy came out with some swagger and confidence early in the season,” first-year Weber State coach Jay Hill said Wednesday on the Big Sky coaches teleconference. “But the last couple of games I don’t think he has thrown it quite as effectively. Billy is very capable of completing 75 percent of his passes for 400 yards and a bunch of touchdowns. We need him to be consistent in everything he is doing.”
Despite being held to 13 yards on nine carries by Montana State, WSU running back Zach Smith is the third leading rusher in the Big Sky, averaging 89.4 yards per game (626 yards and 3 TDs on 100 carries).
“Zach Smith is a great runner,” Hill said. “He would probably be averaging 120 or 130 yards per game if we could keep him healthy. He’s been injured, but has played in all the games. Last week, he was extremely limited on the number of carries he had and didn’t play in the second half at all.
“That is the way his season has gone. When he is healthy, he has run the ball very effectively and he is a big time talent.”
Senior Shaydon Kehano, the Big Sky’s leading receiver with an average of 8.3 receptions per game, rounds out Weber State’s triumvirate of talented offense performers. Kehano is fifth in the BSC in receiving yards per game (92.4) with nine or more receptions in four of WSU’s seven games this season.
“Shaydon could catch 12 to 15 balls per game,” Hill said. “He does a great job getting open. He has a great feel for underneath routes. He can catch the ball in traffic and has the speed to separate from safeties and corners. He has a great feel for the game. He knows how to get open, something all the great wideouts do.”
With talent like that at the offensive skill positions, why is Weber winless after seven games? Because the Wildcats have faltered badly in three areas – turnovers, red zone offense and run defense.
Weber State is last in the Big Sky with an atrocious minus-11 turnover margin. In seven games, the Wildcats have forced just five turnovers while giving the ball away 16 times.
Hill’s frustrations with excessive turnovers boiled over last week when Weber gave themselves an opportunity to tie the game at Montana State late in the fourth quarter by forcing a punt. However, Kehano fumbled on the return and MSU recovered at the WSU 13.
After Montana State kicked a field goal to make it a two-score game (23-13), essentially sealing the win, Clark was sacked and fumbled moments after completing a 26-yard pass out to midfield.
“This is one of the most frustrating losses for us,” Hill said afterwards. “We were moving the ball well in the fourth quarter, but we fumbled when we had a chance. We had a bunch of missed opportunities and that has defined our season. We battled but we didn’t get it done.”
In addition, Weber is last in the Big Sky in red zone scoring percentage (66.7 percent, 14-of-21). The Wildcats have thrown three interceptions and lost the ball twice on downs in the red zone so far this season. Weber’s four red zone turnovers match Sacramento State for most miscues in the Big Sky inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.
Finally, Weber State is 13th in the Big Sky in rushing defense, allowing 226.9 yards per game and 19 rushing touchdowns on the season. Montana State amassed 304 rushing yards in last weekend’s win over the Wildcats in Bozeman.
“Those things (red zone offense, turnovers) are extremely frustrating to me because when you look at our plan to win, winning the turnover margin and scoring touchdowns in the red zone is key. But we have not been very good at either one this year. Those are things we have harped on since my first day last December. Those are two areas we have to get cleaned up.”
Overall, Weber is eighth in total defense (458.3 ypg) in the Big Sky, an improvement of five spots on the ladder.
“(Defensive coordinator) Justin Ena has done a great job with the defense by getting our kids to play more physical,” Hill said. “They’re flying around pretty good for the most part. Last week was frustrating because I felt we gave Montana State probably 200 yards and some points that I felt we should have kept off the board.
“Still, we’ve made some strides forward defensively. But we’re still giving up too many yards rushing. That is a little fearful for us since we’re facing one of the better rushing attacks in the Big Sky this week.”
— Hill on motivating an 0-7 team: “These are Division I athletes. We expect them to show up for work. Is that always easy? I don’t think so. But this team has been motivated by the improvement they have seen over the past year. Statistically, we’ve been in every single game for the last six weeks with chances to win in the fourth quarter. Have we won yet? No. That’s been absolutely frustrating to them. But the frustration has fueled them.”
— Weber State excels at kickoffs, both receiving and covering. The Wildcats are No. 1 in the Big Sky in kickoff coverage with an average of 44.3 yards per kickoff. Fifteen of Weber’s 29 kickoffs have been touchbacks. Also, Weber leads the Big Sky in kickoff returns (28.0 yards per return)
— Weber’s Bo Bolen ranks second in the Big Sky and 17th nationally in kickoff returns, averaging 27.4 yards per return. This year, Bolen has 13 returns for 356 yards.
— Saturday’s game marks Portland State’s first visit to Ogden in four years. The Wildcats hold a 20-13 overall series lead and are 12-4 against PSU in Ogden.
— Senior DE Dustin Martin leads Weber State in sacks (4.5) and tackles for loss (7.5). WSU freshman linebacker Emmett Tela was named last week to the Jerry Rice Award Watch List, one of 21 players in the country named to the list for the award which honors the top freshman in FCS Football.
— First quarter blues for Weber State: The Wildcats continued their struggles in the first quarter at Montana State this season. In the first seven games, WSU has been outscored, 64-7, in the first quarter. The Wildcats have not led in any game in the first quarter. In addition, Weber has converted just 6-of-25 on third down opportunities in the first quarter.