It was Dec. 8, 2017. The game was played in the Shenandoah Valley area of Virginia, and it was “wet cold.” Anybody who doesn’t know what that means? That’s the east coast version of brutal when it comes to cold weather. The opening temperature of that Friday night game was 33 degrees. There wasn’t a ton of wind, but that temperature dipped as the night went on.
Let’s put it this way: That chill impressed the guys from Weber State – a school in northern Utah – who had to play there. It’s not like they didn’t know cold. But this was wet cold, and along with being tasked with having to travel 3,000 miles to a 12-0 defending FCS national championship team – they’d never felt anything exactly like this. In fact, they expected it to be a bunch warmer because it was “back east.”
Yet the Wildcats battled like it mattered none.
“I’d never been back east before,” said Weber State DB Preston Smith, an Arizona native who started that night as a freshman free safety, had a couple of tackles and broke up a pass. “Playing in Utah those first two playoff games (impressive wins vs. Western Illinois and Southern Utah), I thought it was cold as hell at home and then? We would go to Virginia. I honestly thought it would be warm there. Well, it was the same temperature, but it felt like it was 15 degrees colder.”
Yet Weber State gave James Madison one of the best tangles in JMU’s playoff history, minus of course the games in Frisco. The Wildcats may not have had a lot of national followers prior to that game, but they’ve had national believers ever since.
To me? It was the best FCS playoff game – as a neutral observer – I’ve ever seen, before or since. Back-and-forth, black-and-blue (doesn’t that make purple, which fits the narrative?) … it was everything you’d want to see in a do-or-die FCS playoff matchup one week before one of the 197 bowl games got cranking. Sparsely attended mid-December FBS bowl games brought TV money, but little fanfare.
This FCS playoff game was a fight. That was the stark contrast.
This was real football featuring a team that had beaten FBS teams (JMU over East Carolina) and one that had come very close – with Weber State leading Pac-12 California in Berkeley going into the fourth quarter before falling.
Bottom line: These two teams were good, and they have been ever since. In fact, they’re two of the top four programs in the FCS level spanning the past five seasons. The numbers add up: North Dakota State, James Madison, South Dakota State, and Weber State have been the most consistent winners in the playoffs and overall since 2017.
So thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic’s “extra year of eligibility rule” these two teams still have some players who not only played in that December game nearly four years ago – but started and played massive roles. Normally? This wouldn’t happen.
What do these players remember about this game? How about we start with the young freshman who nearly quit playing football at James Madison because he wasn’t even the third-string kicker when he came to play for the Dukes: Ethan Ratke.
Flash to 2017 when an injury happened to established (and talented) upperclassman kicking talent Tyler Gray in midseason: Ratke had to assume the position, and he did it well. In fact? He’s surpassed the national points record in the FCS – and he kicked a 46-yard field goal with no time remaining to help JMU survive the 2017 onslaught that arrived in Harrisonburg from Ogden, Utah.
“It was a crazy game, and it was really back-and-forth,” Ratke told AthlonSports.com. “I was talking to our long snapper when they scored a touchdown against double coverage … But then all of a sudden, we get the ball back. And the next thing you know we’re driving down the field. And I thought this was going to end up with a field goal.
“To this day? That was the most ready for a field goal I felt for a kick. It all felt meant to be in the moment. I went in there not nervous at all. I felt like I was going to make it.”
Ratke nailed the game-winner on national television, along with connection on two other critical field goals in the win.
If you ask Weber State players? They remember being ahead by eight points with just minutes to go, wondering: Wow, are we going to fly home with a win over the defending champs? And the James Madison players remember being scared to death that this would end their run after an undefeated regular season.
“For sure you remember the most – the sting of losing,” said Weber State defensive lineman Jared Schiess, who had a tackle in the game as a freshman. “I remember we were up eight, but I wasn’t feeling relaxed at all. But I was kind of like, hey, this might happen. They had this good wide receiver (Riley Stapleton) and he caught balls and helped them go right down the field.
“We walked into the locker room and it was like, what just happened? They were a good team that made plays when it counted. James Madison is one of the top programs in the country and has been for a while. They’re tough. They execute. When they blitz? They get that blitz done. They’re a lot like we are. They fly around on defense, they execute on offense, their special teams don’t take a play off – even on the PAT block team. They’re just as serious about all of this as we are. They have that attitude and that’s why they’ve been good for so long.”
James Madison was just as complimentary of their “rivals” from Utah. It’s sort of funny to think of two teams that are 3,000 miles away from each other are so curious about each other these days. But they are. They’ve matched up twice in the playoffs the past five years, both times in Harrisonburg. This time, the game is in Utah.
Radio shows, podcasts – you name it: If they’re in Weber State’s neck of the woods, they ask about JMU. If it’s in Virginia? They have a curiosity about Weber State. It’s not exactly hatred, it’s competitive curiosity.
“I guess that’s sort of the way it goes, you have these two perennial powerhouse teams in the FCS and … they’re always going to be good,” said JMU tight end Clayton Cheatham, who caught one pass that chilly December night, as a freshman. “You always know they’re going to be well-coached, and always good on special teams … A great team plays well in all three aspects of the game, and they do that really well. That’s what we do, that’s what Sam Houston State (the defending FCS champs) did this year, that’s what North Dakota State does.”
A recurring theme when talking to both programs is this: Special teams is not an afterthought – it actually might be even a bigger deal than the more established “two facets” of the game (offense and defense). You have a former special teams coach at Utah under Urban Meyer and Kyle Whittingham – Weber State head coach Jay Hill – and a former assistant under Nick Saban at Alabama, JMU head coach Curt Cignetti: Both of these coaches put major focus on this massively critical third aspect of football.
Special teams was a massive part of that epic 2017 battle. And there are remaining components of that night. In fact, overall – 15 current players between the two teams played that night, and several were key on special teams.
Weber State’s Rashid Shaheed was a return weapon in 2017, just as he was against Utah two weeks ago when he took a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. In 2017, he averaged more than 27 yards a return in that game. We already touched on Ratke, and JMU punter Harry O’Kelly – a freshman All-American that year – punted more times that night than he can count, and averaged about 40 yards each time.
As an Prokick Australia service recruit, O’Kelly’s job isn’t always to launch bombs – it’s a situational game, and he has always sacrificed his punting average to be able to do what JMU asks of him. His opponents that night punted nine times for about 44 yards per kick.
See the trend here?
“Special teams is definitely going to be a key role in this game like it was in every other game,” O’Kelly said, in his proud, distinct accent from Down Under. “We care a lot about special teams and so do they. It’s going to determine a lot when it comes to the playoffs. Special teams is what determines victories.
“I still think I had to punt more times that night (seven) than I have ever since. Usually, it’s about four times a game.”
It could be that type of game Saturday. Enjoy, FCS diehards.