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The Other, Other Instate Rivalry: Forecast for BYU vs. Weber State, Week 2

August 8, 2012 Leave a comment

[Note: This is part two of a twelve part series examining BYU football’s 2012 match-ups from the perspective of the Cougars’ opponents. By looking toward the season through the lens of each opposing school, we see a more accurate picture of our own favorite team’s chances in each contest. Or in other words, we’re trying to see past our own strangled fandom. It’s an ongoing experiment, subject to varying degrees of success or failure.]

Weber State … that’s the school in Ogden, right?

I moved to Utah from Alberta (here’s a map) ten years ago, almost to the day. Utah is, to say the least, a distinct state with distinct culture and opinions. Moving here, even as a Mormon boy from a Mormon town, includes all sorts of learning curves. You learn to take an opinion on a host of things you hadn’t known you should care about, from picking sides in the Holy War, to whether going to Utah State was chic or not; from whether you hated or loved Utah Mormons with no in-between, to whether it’s better to be Republican or very Republican.

I’m fairly sure the only single thing no Utahn has an opinion about is Weber State. I’ve heard  almost all of the amusing things my friends have to say about each other’s rival schools: Utah State (cop outs), Utah (hiding from the light) Southern Utah (Cedar City fail), UVU (almost!), BYU (beard-hating snobs) and even Dixie State, Snow College and the College of Eastern Utah (LOL). But as far as I can tell, the Weber State Wildcats are neither hot nor cold in the eyes of their would be in-state rivals. They’re just… there.

While the world has been busy not watching, however, the Wildcats have put together a respectable football program, peaking most recently in 2008, when they finished 10-4 and advanced as far as the Division II national quarterfinals (Yes, I’m talking about playoffs larger than four teams!) The team has since come down to earth, finishing a mediocre 5-6 in head coach Ron McBride’s last season before retirement (McBride’s coaching career also included leading the Utes to eight winning seasons, three bowl victories and seven losses to BYU). But despite sporting a consistently losing record against Division I schools (0-9 since 2006), the Wildcats remain a constant in the top third of the Big Sky Conference, which also boasts national Division II contenders like Montana State, Montana and Eastern Washington. Who knew? … But seriously, who knew?

In a break from their typical anonymity, the football program at Weber State received an oh-so brief turn in the national spotlight this offseason, but it was the type of attention they’d happily give back. Upon McBride’s retirement, the Wildcats brought on John L. Smith, a high profile alumnus who had enjoyed previous stints as the head man at Louisville and Michigan State. Smith was hired in December at age 63 for what most expected to be his last gig, and was lauded as a great hire. But after only four and a half months on the job, it was revealed that Smith was most certainly (and literally) not a keeper — when he gave the school a two hour notice of his intention to leave for the head coaching job at Arkansas. Coaching assistants and recruits, some of whom Smith had brought on himself, were demoralized, players were shocked and fans and media alike were outraged. But Smith’s betrayal was as swift as it was complete, and Weber State was left to search for a head coach with less than four months before fall camp. (Do I blame Smith for preferring to coach at a nationally ranked SEC school while taking in four times the salary? Absolutely not. And admittedly, the scandal responsible for such a vacancy was bizarre, timing and all. But Smith showed categorical disrespect to his employers, players and alma mater by his lack of a heads-up.)

Forced into this dilemma, the school moved quickly to name then defensive coordinator Jody Sears as interim head coach. Sears can boast several years of defensive coordinating experience, but he was fired from his most recent stop at Washington State after his defense exhibited serious trouble stopping opponents. He has also never been a head coach at any level and came onto the staff mere weeks before Smith’s sudden departure.

But apart from Sears’ inexperience, and Smith’s betrayal, which Weber State’s athletics site very politely termed “newsworthy,” there isn’t a whole lot that stands out for better or for worse about this team. The Wildcats finished with a fairly even point differential (31.5 PPG, 32.2 allowed) in 2011, about on par for their win-loss record (5-6). Despite returning 14 starters, the team is expected to hover around the middle of the Big Sky in a slightly down year while coaching adjustments are made. In short, the Wildcats may be literally a whole league below BYU, but they can’t even get noticed for playing bad football, like say Idaho State bad. True to the character of Weber State as a school, this football team maintains a low profile.

Best case scenario for Weber State in 2012:

Sears uses the turbulent offseason to galvanize his team. He’s hailed as a master motivator and a strong candidate to shed the interim label after Weber State runs the table in its swing games against the soft middle of the Big Sky Conference. Led by senior quarterback Mike Hoke’s experience, the Wildcats are in almost every game.

Worst case scenario for Weber State in 2012:

The Wildcats come out of the gate looking like a team that has employed three head coaches in the past year. They pick up a few wins from the gimmes in their own conference, but by in large fail to recover from their poor start. The team gets caught in BYU’s cross-hairs at the worst possible time, looking more like Idaho State than a legitimate football destination in the state of Utah.   The program visibly takes a step backward, and Sears’ future with the school, whether fair or not, comes into serious question.

(** Likely wins, likely losses, swing games and projected record for Weber State are listed at the foot of this post.)

Leading up to the game:

The Wildcats open the season at Fresno State, a program that has endured a fall in prestige during the past decade but is widely expected to have a resurgent year and finish near the top of the new WAC Mountain West. I really don’t see a scenario in which Fresno State fails to impose its physical will. The Wildcats will likely head to Provo with an opening week loss behind them. The Cougars, who I earlier predicted will come into week two at 1-0, will face the reality road games at Utah and Boise State looming in the near future, and you know it will be weighing on the players’ minds, no matter how often they say all the right things to reporters during the week.

How it will all add up in Week 2:

Coach Mendenhall will need to walk the fine line between a) the opportunity for the Cougars to tinker with formations, plays and personnel while leading comfortably in the second half and b) convincing his players that its important to stay focused from wire to wire. The easiest cure to this dilemma is a blistering start, putting the Wildcats away early and keeping them there for the remaining three quarters, ushering in some unofficial preparation for the Utes. If the Wildcats remain within two possessions for longer than halfway through the second quarter, Mendenhall will surely be disappointed that his team wasted the opportunity to get an early start preparing for the most treacherous portion of their schedule. (If he publicly says after the game that he planned on devoting 60 minutes solely to defeating the Wildcats, he is lying.)  If Riley Nelson has to stay in the game more than one or two series into the third quarter, the Cougars didn’t accomplish their game plan in the first half.

It’s an exaggeration to say every BYU player is more physically impressive than every Wildcat, but the most imposing Cougars will be given the chance to seriously exploit the athleticism gaps that undoubtedly do exist. Mendenhall will expect to see several tackles for a loss and at least a turnover or two from defensive leaders like Kyle Van Noy and Brandon Ogletree. On the offensive side, I fully expect coordinator Brandon Doman to call plays designed to go over the top for big gains to Cody Hoffman — one of the ten most underrated players in college football. If these physical prototypes, the kind Weber State has no answer for, take care of business the way they’re capable of, most starters will have nearly a full half to rest up for the Holy War. Otherwise, the Cougars will be spending needless energy on what should have been a foregone conclusion. (Hey, that’s my job.)

BYU: 41 Weber State: 9

2012 Forecast for Weber State:

Likely wins: McNeese State, UC Davis, Sacramento State, Northern Colorado, Idaho State

Likely losses: Fresno State, BYU

Swing games: Eastern Washington, Cal Poly, Southern Utah, Montana

Predicted season result: 6-5

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Ben Lockhart | ben.lockhart89@gmail.com | @benlockhart89 | 801 462 6711

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