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FARGO, N.D. (AP) — 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 before more than 18,000 fans inside a deafening Fargodome.
It was the second straight 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 head 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 to their goal line twice in the second half, including one that led to a clinching safety when Brian Schaetz tackled Panthers 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," UNI coach Mark Farley said. "It still came down to that kickoff return."
The Bison (11-2) advance to next week's semifinal game 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, and reeled off a handful of long gains, including Bailey's 83-yard run for a score. 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 highly-touted running combination of Bailey and Tyvis Smith — both of whom have gone over 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 touchdown drive on the game's first possession. Anderson, a speedster from Ruskin, Florida, 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."
Running back King Frazier led the Bison offense with 107 yards rushing. He scored on a 4-yard run to finish off a seven-play, 90-yard march midway through the third quarter to make it 21-10. The Panthers came back on their next possession and drove 69 yards before settling for Michael Schmaedke's second field goal of the game with 4:17 left.
While the Bison played without standout quarterback and NFL prospect Carson Wentz for the seventh straight game because of a wrist injury, LeCompte upped his stock a possible pro. He had one punt that hit near the UNI 1 and bounced back to the 4 with 71 seconds showing in the third quarter. The punt that led to the safety put UNI at its own 7 with 3:02 left.
LeCompte said he holds the ball vertically on pooch punts so the ball goes end over end like a kickoff and has a chance of bouncing backward, a theory his coach joked about afterward.
"Show up on Mondays. It doesn't always bounce back," Klieman, chuckling.
Farley and the UNI players say they considered the contest to be the FCS championship game.
"I felt these two teams were the two best teams," said Farley, whose team came in riding a seven game winning streak. The Panthers had average 46 points in their previous five games.
"This is the game you love to play in," Panthers defensive back Tim Kilfoy said. "We have respect for them. We know they're going to be the best team we play all year."
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