Saturday's contest between North Dakota State and Northern Iowa was consistently and correctly compared to a heavyweight fight. The game was a slobberknocker, the first drive was a haymaker thrown by the Panthers and Bruce Anderson's 97 yard kick return was, according to head coach Chris Klieman, the knockout punch.
It was the second straight epic battle between the two Missouri Valley Football Conference squads. This contest was always going to be lower scoring than the 31-28 thriller in October because NDSU's defense has improved by leaps and bounds over the course of the seaon and UNI didn't have potential NFL draft pick Carson Wentz to deal with. In this quarterfinal game, the defenses were the ones throwing the punches.
Neither team gained more than 270 yards of total offense. Both Easton Stick's Bison and Aaron Bailey's Panthers stuck to their guns from a game plan perspective. NDSU ran the ball 41 times to just 17 passing attempts. Northern Iowa operated with a 38-16 ratio. These were two good rushing offenses going against two good rushing defenses.
The story of the game just might have been North Dakota State senior punter Ben LeCompte. An All-American candidate, LeCompte averaged 45 yards per kick, boomed one attempt 62 yards and pinned UNI inside the 20 yard line five times, inside the 10 three. "Ben flipped the field all day long. It's an expectation that Ben has, and it's an expectation that Ben's teammates have" said head coach Chris Klieman glowingly.
It looked like the Bison might have to win another game in the 30s after Northern Iowa's first drive. The Panthers rolled down the field with a 38-37 balance in pass and run yardage to take a 7-0 lead with 10:09 remaining in the 1st quarter. To compound the problem, Stick and the Bison went three-and-out on their first possession. The Code Green defense would surrender just 146 yards over the next 55:09 of football.
NDSU answered on the next drive with a 1 yard run from Chase Morlock. A Darius Anderson fumble led to a UNI field goal and a 10-7 lead for the Panthers. After Anderson's opening half kickoff return for a touchdown, the Panthers would never see the lead again. The Bison defense clamped down, allowing just 11 first downs on the day.
The Bison defense was led again by junior linebacker Nick DeLuca. DeLuca directed Code Green against the UNI no-huddle attack all the while registering 16 total tackles. North Dakota State was dominant defensively despite not forcing a turnover. The defensive play of the game came from senior defensive lineman Brian Schaetz. With 02:57 left in the game and the Panthers down 8, Schaetz blew into the backfield and sacked Bailey in the end zone, creating a two possession game and effectively sending the Bison to the semis.
Klieman was both ecstatic and relieved after the game: "I know it's an expectation for us to be here, but doggone it, this is hard."
North Dakota State will take on the Richmond Spiders of the CAA in a national semifinal. Richmond defeated MVCF co-chamion Illinois State on Friday night to advance. BisonReport believes the game will be on Friday night, December 18th on ESPN.