Utah State Football: First Look At The Weber State Wildcats
The Aggies will host its in-state FCS brethren in non-conference play this September.
A Beehive State battle.
Utah State Football: First Look at 2022 Non-conference Opponents
After starting the year with a home game against UConn and a road trip to Alabama, the Utah State Aggies will head home in Week 2 to host the Weber State Wildcats.
2021 was something of an off-year for the typical Big Sky powerhouse, which can only mean more motivation for a return trip to the FCS playoffs. They’ll certainly be happy to score an unexpected FBS upset along the way, so the defending Mountain West champions won’t want to look past this matchup.
Location: Ogden, Utah
Conference: Big Sky
Series History: Utah State leads the all-time series, 14-1.
2021 Record: 6-5 (5-3 Big Sky)
Head Coach: Jay Hill (ninth year at Weber State, 58-36 overall). Hill’s Wildcats missed out on a spot in the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2015, but they weren’t that far away for extending that streak. A pair of close losses to UC Davis and Montana State made most of the difference and obscures they were as potent as ever when on their game: The team’s six wins came by an average of 31 points.
Eddie Heckard, CB
After a serious injury wiped out the majority of his 2018 season, Heckard bounced back and has established himself as one of the top defenders anywhere in the Big Sky over the last few years. That includes back-to-back appearances on the all-conference first-team defense, last year’s honor coming on the back of 48 total tackles, seven pass breakups, an interception, and three forced fumbles.
Taken together, it also helps to contextualize a Pro Football Focus overall grade of 82.5 that was the third-best of all Big Sky cornerbacks.
#58 in our 60in60 Eddie Heckard is an athlete! Excellent slot defender. pic.twitter.com/hK6OYDbG6T
— Hans Olsen (@975Hans) June 13, 2022
Noah Atagi, OL
Atagi, like Heckard, has also landed on the postseason first-team all-Big Sky roster two years in a row but, unlike his defensive teammate, he was the only Wildcat to be named to the Big Sky’s preseason all-conference team last month. The 6-foot-4, 325-pound South Ogden native has seen action in 32 career games already and served as a team captain two years in a row, and his 72.4 PFF pass-blocking grade suggests he’ll be a good test for Utah State’s retooled pass rush.
Bronson Barron, QB
Between the FCS spring season and its traditional fall campaign, 2021 ended up being a pretty adventurous calendar year for the Wildcats signal-caller. He started five games under center as Weber State claimed yet another conference title in the spring, but injuries limited him to eight games in the fall. Though his yards per attempt fell from 8.2 to 7.1, Barron improved his completion rate from 55% to 61% and had eight touchdowns against five interceptions. Still technically a freshman thanks to the quirks of COVID-related eligibility, he’s the engine that will make the WSU offense go.
REPLAY: Bronson Barron finds Ty MacPherson for a 32-yd touchdown 🙌
— Weber State Football 🏈 (@weberstatefb) September 12, 2021
Hayden Meachem, TE
Meachem didn’t get a ton of balls thrown his way last season, but he had a knack for making those opportunities count. He was named a third-team all-Big Sky selection after catching 19 passes for 150 yards and four touchdowns, providing Barron with a reliable security blanket in the middle of the field.
Ty McPherson, WR
The Wildcats do have to replace top pass catcher Rashid Shaheed, so the senior McPherson should also see a few more targets as a result. In 2021, he acted as Shaheed’s primary complement and finished with 37 catches for 478 yards and two touchdowns.
On the whole, Weber State’s offense wasn’t bad in 2021, per say. The Wildcats finished in the middle of the pack by yards per play (5.23) and did finish in the top 30 by averaging 31.3 points per game, but it was offensive letdowns that defined their season: They only managed 24 points in a loss to James Madison, 14 in losing to UC Davis, and seven in a loss to Montana State.
New offensive coordinator Mickey Mental, who came to Ogden from Division II Notre Dame College, has a few established pieces to build around in what appears will be a simplified and faster attack. Barron is more or less set as QB1 if he can stay healthy and the top three running backs — Dontae McMillan, Josh Davis, and Kris Jackson — combined for 985 rushing yards, a respectable 4.65 yards per attempt, and 12 touchdowns.
In the passing game, replacing Shaheed’s production (he returned kicks and punts, too) could be tough but McPherson, Meacham, and others like Haze Hadley and Jon Christensen provide much needed established depth.
To borrow a term from esports, the Wildcats defense carried quite often last year. They finished 9th among FBS teams in allowing 4.43 yards per play and 19th overall with 19.5 points per game allowed while picking up 25 sacks and 18 takeaways, but co-defensive coordinators Grant Duff and Joe Dale have some reloading to do, especially up front, to maintain that caliber of performance.
With Jared Schiess, Connor Mortensen, and George Tarlas having moved on, Weber State will somehow have to replace their three biggest disruptors up front. The good news is that others like Doug Schiess (22 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss), Jared’s brother, and Winston Reid (36 tackles, three TFLs, two forced fumbles) could take on more snaps in their stead.
In the secondary, one big task is finding a replacement for three-time all-conference safety Preston Smith, though incumbents like Braxton Gunther, formerly of Utah State, and senior cornerback Marque Collins (18 tackles, five pass breakups, one INT) return to provide veteran leadership.
The Wildcats defense could help them hang around much longer than anyone in Logan would expect, especially if the Aggies get off to one of the slow starts that defined the early part of last season, but it’s hard to imagine they’ll put the clamps on Logan Bonner and company for a full sixty minutes and it’s doubtful they’ll have the offense to keep up once Utah State breaks through.
Utah State 37, Weber State 17