FARGO, N.D. – An evenly-matched playoff football game between conference foes North Dakota State and Northern Iowa might have been decided in a matter of seconds.
Bison true freshman Bruce Anderson returned the second-half kickoff for a touchdown to spark the four-time defending FCS champions to a 23-13 victory over Northern Iowa in a hard-fought quarterfinal game Saturday in front of more than 18,000 fans inside a deafening Fargodome.
It was the second consecutive week that the 18-year-old Anderson took a kickoff all the way. This time Anderson appeared to be corralled at the NDSU 40, but spun out of the tackle and sprinted in on a 97-yard scoring play to turn a three-point halftime deficit into a 14-10 lead.
“We talked at half. Somebody had to make a play,” NDSU coach Chris Klieman said. “If you have the ability to make a play, you’ve got to do it. I didn’t know it would be in the first six seconds.”
The Bison never relinquished the lead, thanks in large part to an inspired defense and the work of standout punter Ben LeCompte. LeCompte pinned the Panthers offense near their goal line twice in the second half, including one that led to a clinching safety when Brian Schaetz tackled quarterback Aaron Bailey to make it 23-13 with 2:57 left.
“We fought ’til the bitter end to try and win that football game,” Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley said. “It still came down to that kickoff return.”
The Bison (11-2) advance to host a semifinal game, either Friday or Saturday, against Richmond, which surprised last year’s FCS runner-up Illinois State on Friday. That loss gave the Bison a third playoff game at home, something LeCompte said was a motivating factor for the UNI game.
“We shouldn’t have been thinking about it, but I saw that Illinois State went down last night and I knew we had an opportunity for another game in the Fargodome,” LeCompte said. “I had that in the back of my mind.”
The Panthers (9-5) ran for 277 yards in the regular-season game, the most the Bison have given up this season though they won 31-28. UNI’s longest run Saturday was 15 yards, by Bailey. The Panthers were limited to 120 yards rushing this time and a season-low 221 yards of total offense.
UNI’s running combination of Bailey and Tyvis Smith — both of whom have gone more than 1,000 yards this season — were held to a combined 91 yards on 34 carries.
“Defensively our biggest key was to not give up the explosive play,” Klieman said. “That’s something that they were able to get on us on numerous occasions the first time we played them.”
Even so, the Panthers had the upper hand in the first half and outgained the Bison 150-79 in total offense, including a 10-play, 75-yard TD drive on the game’s first possession. Anderson quickly changed the tone with his kickoff return.
“I think it’s confidence,” Anderson said of his back-to-back TD returns. “I’ve been able to hit it faster, and the blocking has been great.”