Whatever Ron McBride did during his time at Weber State has worked. The players he recruited not only stayed, they thrived.
New emphasis on the run, improved facilities and a brand new FieldTurf surface to help withstand those dreary, cold winters in Weber County pushed the Wildcats from an also-ran doormat to a contender year in and year out in the Football Championship Series (FCS).
Even with John L. Smith doing an about-face and leaving just two weeks into his contract, the post-McBride Wildcats are still around and ready to do battle in what could be their most productive season yet.
Under interim head coach Jody Sears, the Wildcats aim to improve on a 5-6 record and take McBride’s bunch to a Big Sky title and an FCS playoff berth. Now it’s time to see what McBride’s senior class can do — though Ronnie Mac is no longer on the sidelines.
The first game at Fresno State is actually very winnable. The Bulldogs are not the powerhouse team they once were and longtime coach Pat Hill is now gone, replaced by an Air Force Academy graduate, Tim DeRuyter. The first glaring stat to look at is the ‘Dogs propensity to turn the ball over. Against a Weber team that runs the ball as often as it passes, FSU will be in big trouble if that happens. But it can hang its hat on David Carr’s little brother Derek at QB and a loaded offense with 1,000 yard rusher Robbie Rouse. In a game that will feature a ton of points, Fresno State 49, Weber State 42
Like the first game, another Division I opponent on the road would normally spell trouble. But in this case BYU is that foe and Weber should line up well against the Cougars based on Mac’s ability to recruit players who are both athletic and physical. There is little doubt that the Cougars have an amazing defense but its offense could be a question mark. And with Weber’s ability to run the football and play a balanced offense, it spells upset in Provo most years. This year, however, is Riley Nelson’s year and there’s just something about this kid from Cache Valley that you have to like. BYU 31, Weber State 21
Nobody said Weber’s schedule was easy, and perennial FCS juggernaut McNeese State is anything but. After two D-1 schools you would think the schedule makers would give the ‘Cats a break, but no. McNeese handled Middle Tennessee State a 27-21 loss on opening night, and the Cowboys ran for almost 300 yards on the ground. The kicker about McNeese’s schedule is that their only trip west of the Rocky Mountains is the one to Ogden; that’s always a built-in advantage for a team — particularly for Weber State who’s played tough opposition already. Weber State 27, McNeese State 20
Again, no rest for the weary as Eastern Washington comes to Ogden. The 2010 national champion Eagles are another FCS powerhouse and the ‘Cats first Big Sky Conference opponent of the season. What’s more is EWU pasted Division I rival Idaho 20-3 in the season opener, leading way to speculation that the Eagles are not an FCS team. Just kidding. They are; it’s just that they’re pretty good, apparently, now led by QB Kyle Patron, a transfer from SMU and the return of wide receiver Brandon Kaufman, who missed almost all of 2011 due to injury. But here’s the thing: EWU and Weber have always played tight games — and this one’s at home. And on this night, Weber will get back to .500. EWU 30, Weber State 27 (OT)
Like Southern Utah — another future Wildcat opponent — UC Davis makes its debut in the Big Sky Conference in 2012 under a head coach in Bob Biggs who’s calling it quits after 20 seasons at the helm. The Aggies blasted Division II Azusa Pacific 41-3 to open the season but has three straight road games to play before finally coming home to play the ‘Cats on Sept. 29. By then, however, the rigors of playing in a new conference and Weber’s experience in big games will prove to be too daunting a task. Weber State 35, UC Davis 14
Just when you hope for a break in the schedule comes another FCS juggernaut in Cal Poly. The Mustangs are coming off a 6-5 season, which meant they under-achieved, just sharing the Great West crown with North Dakota. Now that Poly is in the Big Sky means tougher opposition, however, the Mustangs do not have to play either Montana or Montana State in its first season in the conference — though it will have to play EWU and Weber. Poly is always athletic and always gives run-first teams fits. In this game, however, at home and in front of a raucous crowd the Wildcats will prevail in a tight one. Weber State 28, Cal Poly 20
Considering Weber trounced Sacramento State 49-17 last season — and the Hornets started off 2012 losing 49-19 to lowly D-1 school New Mexico State — Wildcat fans should worry a little about Sac State’s chances of winning. The reason is because it’s Homecoming and WSU has lost the last three of four in Sacramento. The problem for Sac State, however, is that they’re facing a Weber team loaded with veterans and the Hornets are simply overmatched. All that equates to a Weber win. Weber State 41, Sac State 20
This game at Southern Utah is pivotal; it could determine whether Weber keeps up in a new, improved conference race that is bound to be competitive and tight. What’s more is that despite having preseason All-America QB Brad Sorensen, the T-Birds play just four Big Sky games at home — and this matchup against Weber is one of those. SUU will have also played a brtual non-conference slate, dotted with games against Utah State and Cal — while taking on the two Montana schools, EWU and Weber. By this point the T-Birds schedule will have taken its toll on SUU and Weber will go into Eccles Coliseum ready to take advantage. Weber State 30, SUU 17
Montana comes into Ogden on Nov. 3 with a new head coach, a new QB and literally new eveything. Controversy has surrounded the Grizzlies since former coach Robin Pflugrad was fired and starting QB Jordan Johnson was charged with rape. But Montana has one thing going for it this season: its schedule. Without any Division I opponent in sight, all of the Grizzlies’ games are winnable. And under the fair but firm hand of Mick Delaney, a longtime Griz assistant, a young but talented bunch will look to continue on an 11-2 season that resulted in a FCS national semifinal berth. On this day, however, Weber will win out against a team returning just 11 starters. Weber State 40, Montana 28
Another home game is on tap the following week, as Northern Colorado visits Wildcat Stadium. The Bears were a powerhouse squad in Division II, however, things have never been the same for UNC since moving up to FCS. The Bears lost 41-0 at Utah on opening day, never reaching beyond their own 49-yard-line. This is a good game at the perfect time for the ‘Cats, who should be in position to contend for the Big Sky title — if everything goes right. Much will have to go to plan in order for that to happen but the Bears shouldn’t provide much of a contest, being that they didn’t win a game last season. Weber State 56, UNC 3
The final game presents a challenge — as it always has in rival Idaho State. The Bengals come into 2012 having had its postseason ban for a low APR (Academic Progress Rate) lifted. Coach Mike Kramer — a firebrand if there ever was — has a similar problem to Montana’s: he has few returning starters. Frankly, the scheduling gods couldn’t have concocted a better end to a brutal schedule. Weber State 49, Idaho State 31
So many things must go right in order for the Wildcats to have a season worthy of either a Big Sky title or a playoff berth — or both. First, Weber State must stay healthy; the ‘Cats are loaded everywhere on offense, including at running back with Josh Booker, at wide receiver with Shaydon Kehano and at tight end with Brian Jankowski. But the player who will make this offense go is senior quarterback Mike Hoke, who learned under WSU legend Cameron Higgins before being named the starter last season. So for Hoke and the rest of the ‘Cats, it’s make-or-break time and much is expected of Hoke, his deep receiving corps and Booker — who ran for over 1,000 yards last season and was named second-team All-Conference.
Similar to its punishing, balanced offense — a McBride trademark — is its defense. But the Wildcat D failed in many ways last year to replicate what it had done in years past when Weber had playoff teams and played stingy defense. So getting back to a similar form will be crucial — or else it could be a repeat of last season, in which a talented group of veterans failed to reach the expectations they and the Wildcats fans had. Senior defensive end Trevor Pletcher and juniors Anthony Morales (linebacker) and Willie Okuwunu (defensive back) need to have big seasons, as do many on this junior-and-senior laden squad and surpass expectations.
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