College football: Weber St. a formidable opponent for UMaine in FCS quarters

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Weber State wide receiver Devon Cooley (85) breaks the tackle of Idaho State’s Christian Holland (44) last month at Holt Arena in Pocatello, Idaho. (Doug Lindley/The Idaho State Journal via AP)

The University of Maine put up its most impressive offensive performance of the season Saturday in a 55-27 thumping of Jacksonville State.

The Black Bears will need to be even better when they take on Weber State in the Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinals Friday night in Ogden, Utah.

The Wildcats will present a defensive challenge for Maine with an aggressive, relentless style that can turn a game quickly.

In a 48-23 second-round win over Southeast Missouri State, Weber State had four interceptions, returning one for a touchdown.

“They do a lot of things that challenge you,” Maine coach Joe Harasymiak said. “They play a lot of one-on-ones, much like our defense. I’m impressed. It’s another challenge for our offense to compete at a high level.”

Maine (9-3) is seeking its first quarterfinal win in school history. The Black Bears, seeded seventh in the tournament, have dropped their three previous quarterfinals, the last in 2011.

Weber State, seeded second, is 10-2 and lost in the quarterfinals last season to James Madison.

That the Wildcats are strong defensively isn’t a surprise. Coach Jay Hill, in his fifth season, is also the defensive coordinator. This year Weber State led the Big Sky Conference in total defense, rush defense and scoring defense, and is ranked in the top 10 nationally in three defensive categories: third-down conversion (fifth, 29 percent), sacks (seventh, 39) and turnover margin (eighth, plus-11).

Weber State has scored 96 points off turnovers this year.

“They’re aggressive, well-coached and have a ton of talent,” Maine sophomore quarterback Chris Ferguson said. “We’re going to have to be on-point this week. We have to execute our game plan.”

Senior linebacker LeGrand Toia leads Weber State with 79 tackles, including 13 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks. Senior linebacker Landon Stice is next with 69 tackles (11.5 for a loss and 3.5 sacks) and five interceptions. Senior cornerback Jordan Preator leads the Wildcats with three interceptions and a team-high eight pass breakups.

“The first thing that jumps out is that they’re extremely well-coached,” Harasymiak said. “They’ll be one of the best-coached teams we face this year. Watching film, you can tell the players understand the scheme and what the coaches want to get done. I’m impressed with that.”

Offensively the Wildcats strike a nice balance, averaging 173 passing yards and 152.3 rushing yards per game. Quarterback Jake Constantine is coming off his best game of the season, throwing for 199 yards and four touchdowns, also running for a score. For the season he’s completed 63.7 percent of his passes for 1,350 yards and 16 touchdowns, with eight interceptions.

He spreads the ball around, with six receivers catching at least 20 passes. Rashid Shaheen leads the way with 36 catches for 423 yards and five touchdowns. He caught six last week, including a touchdown. Devin Cooley caught four passes last week with a touchdown.

When they run, the Wildcats look to redshirt freshman Josh Davis, who has rushed for 1,350 yards and nine touchdowns.

Special teams also are a factor. Led by Shaheen, Weber State is fourth in the nation in kickoff returns, averaging 26.8 yards a return. Last week they were successful on two fake punts.

“This is going to be the best special teams unit we’ve gone against,” said Harasymiak.

NOTES: Ferguson was named the College Football Performance Awards FCS national performer of the week for his effort against Jacksonville State. Ferguson threw for a Maine playoff-record five touchdowns in the 55-27 victory, completing 14 of 26 passes for 159 yards. He was not intercepted.

“When Chris is healthy, we feel he’s one of the best, and that’s been a challenge this year,” said Harasymiak, alluding to a recurring shoulder injury Ferguson has dealt with all year. “The bye week helped us. Like any quarterback, when he plays well, it gives us a chance to win.”

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