McFeely: North Dakota State Bison victory over Northern Iowa so strange, yet so familiar

FARGO -- The punter was the MVP, a kickoff return for a touchdown by a true freshman turned the tide and the crowd was pushed over the edge when a sack was erased because a fan blew a whistle.Other than that, nothing special happened at the Fargo...

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North Dakota State’s Brian Schaetz, bottom left, sacks Northern Iowa quarterback Aaron Bailey, bottom, as teammates Greg Menard, right, and Nate Tanguay, top, celebrate the play late in the fourth quarter Saturday during the FCS quarterfinals at the Fargodome. (FNS Photo by Kevin Cederstrom)

FARGO -- The punter was the MVP, a kickoff return for a touchdown by a true freshman turned the tide and the crowd was pushed over the edge when a sack was erased because a fan blew a whistle.
Other than that, nothing special happened at the Fargodome on Saturday.
In some ways, most maybe, that’s true. The North Dakota State Bison are again rolling through the Football Subdivision Championship playoffs behind a defense you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy and a savage ground game predicated on the simple theory of brute strength. Man-to-man, the Bison will line up and punish you until you tap out. Been working for five years now, no reason to change the script.
Northern Iowa has proved itself a team that can last longer than most against NDSU and this time was no different. The Bison won 23-13 in the quarterfinals but it was every bit the matchup everybody expected. The Panthers led 10-7 at halftime and the outcome was not determined until defensive tackle Brian Schaetz sacked UNI quarterback Aaron Bailey in the end zone for a safety with 2:57 remaining on the clock.
“We’re one of the few teams that can walk in this building and do what we did,” UNI coach Mark Farley accurately said afterward. “I think we have just as good a football team as North Dakota State has. We have a great football team.”
There are four national championship trophies that might dispute what Farley said, but his point was in the ballpark. So many teams have come to the dome for the playoffs full of vim and vigor, only to be looking for the nearest exit sign by the middle of the third quarter. The Panthers aren’t one of those teams. In many ways, they are a program mirroring NDSU.
That’s why having a punter like Ben LeCompte who can drop kicks inside the 20-yard line five times is so important. The kid was backing up punts at the goal line like Phil Mickelson backs up wedge shots, rendering dangerous UNI quarterback Aaron Bailey as powerless as Tiger Woods.
That’s why having a breakout star like running Bruce Anderson is so important. For the second straight week, Anderson returned a kickoff for a touchdown to electrify the dome crowd and give the Bison an all-important lead at 14-10. It was the play of the game, 97 yards of momentum-changing energy from which the Panthers never quite recovered.
And with Bison coach Chris Klieman eschewing the amazing LeCompte in favor of trying 50-yard-plus field goals with shaky true freshman kicker Cam Pedersen, who hasn’t kicked one over 49, the home team needed all the boosts it could get.
It got another one from a strange source. After Pedersen missed from 54 and UNI took over at its 37, the Bison defense sacked Bailey on second down. But the quarterback obviously stopped playing in the middle of the action and protested after being taken down. The officials huddled and said a fan blew a whistle in the stands, so the sack was called a no-play. Second down would be a do-over for the Panthers.
The 18,041 fans in attendance took umbrage to this decision and proceeded to make as much noise as a dome crowd has ever made, an ear-splitting din that had more than a hint of anger to it. The Panthers were called for a false start on the next play and the fans never really quieted down.
And so after all the angst, hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth over NDSU’s playoff placement after the NCAA released the brackets, the Bison find themselves in the semifinals with a home date against Richmond. The Spiders did NDSU a favor, it seems, by knocking off higher-seeded Illinois State on Friday night. So instead of traveling to play a road game against the co-Missouri Valley Football Conference champion team that almost beat them in the title game last year, the Bison will play at the dome against a team that’s never been here before. First-timers historically struggle in Fargo.
The Bison have set themselves up for a return engagement in Frisco, Texas.
While Farley was open in saying he believed NDSU and UNI were the two best teams remaining in the field, Klieman was extremely terse when asked whether he viewed the contest as the national championship.
“It was a quarterfinal game,” Klieman said.
He continued: “I know it’s an expectation to be here, but doggone it, it’s hard. Ask Northern Iowa. It is hard to do this. That game could’ve gone either way. It is unbelievably hard to do what we’ve done for the last five years.”
Sometimes you need your punter, a true freshman returner and a whistle from the stands to give you a boost.

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