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FARGO, N.D. (AP) — The emotional boost North Dakota State gets from its star quarterback's return to practice may not matter if the Bison can't stop Northern Iowa's vaunted running game.
Senior signal-caller Carson Wentz, a top-tier pro prospect who last year led the Bison to their fourth straight FCS title, had been out for seven weeks with a broken right wrist. NDSU coach Chris Klieman announced Wentz's return during his weekly press conference on Monday, but whether Wentz will play in Saturday's FCS quarterfinal game appears to be a game-day decision.
Wentz could take the field if he's "comfortable and confident enough," Klieman said.
"Just having him back is amazing," NDSU running back Bruce Anderson said. "He brings a lot of energy to practice and he just is a great guy to be around."
Bison strong safety Robbie Grimsley agreed, while quickly adding that the Bison defenders will need more than attitude to tackle UNI's 1-2 rushing punch of quarterback Aaron Bailey and running back Tyvis Smith.
"We're still trying to do our own thing on the defensive side of the ball," Grimsley said. "We know we're going to have to have a little more success against them than we had last time."
The Panthers piled up 277 yards on the ground against the Bison in October, a game the Bison won but talk about like a loss. No team rushed for more yards against NDSU this season — and UNI did it without a single carry from Smith, who watched from the sidelines while coach Mark Farley used three other backs.
Bailey pulled off the longest run from scrimmage this year against the Bison, scoring from 83 yards.
"Looking back on it, I think it was more of what we didn't do," Bison linebacker MJ Stumpf said. "Obviously Bailey is a really good athlete, as well as the running back, and they have good receivers. So we have our hands full, but overall I think a lot of it comes down to the way we play.
"We have gotten better over the last seven games," he added. "So have they."
Both UNI backs are fast and physical. The 6-foot-2, 226-pound Bailey has 1,301 yards on the ground and the 6-3, 224-pound Smith has 1,021 yards. They are the first two players in school history to top 1,000 yards in the same season.
Bailey and Smith both went over 200 yards in a playoff win last week at Portland State. That included a 69-yard touchdown run by Bailey and a 59-yard TD scamper by Smith.
"They're home-run hitters," Klieman said.
This is the 49th meeting between NDSU and UNI, dating back to 1938. NDSU has won four of the last five games and has a 3-1 record in the Fargodome. NDSU is 14-0 at home in the FCS playoffs. It's the first postseason game between the two Missouri Valley Football Conference foes.
UNI has won seven straight games since placing themselves in survival mode with three straight conference losses.
"You know, we've fought our way into a good position right now," Farley said. "We're playing good football. I think we're playing sound football. I'm very pleased with how we're playing."
The Bison have won six in a row since losing to South Dakota — and losing Wentz — on Oct. 17. The USD setback followed the hard-hitting 31-28 win over UNI, after which the Panthers lost to Western Illinois.
"It will be a real physical game," Klieman said of the rematch. "Everyone saw the first time we played and what happened to both teams on the week after."
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