FARGO – It's not often you see ESPN interview a punter, but that was the case soon after 2 p.m. on Saturday. While North Dakota State and Northern Iowa were slugging it out with incredible force on practically every play, the guy whose job is clean and friendly was the player of the game.
This NDSU and ESPN relationship is so far advanced and chummy that Ben LeCompte and ESPN announcer Anish Shroff are on a first-name basis.
"Anish said this is the first time they've ever done that," LeCompte said of the network interviewing a punter on national TV after the game. "So honored to be the first one. It's a credit to everybody around here and the importance we stress on special teams every day. It's a game changer, we know that and you saw that today."
What we saw was a punter making a major difference in NDSU's 23-13 win in the FCS quarterfinals at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. The kid was hot, like a golfer ringing a string of birdies on the back nine on Sunday afternoon. LeCompte was sticking wedge shots within a few feet of the pin – or at least the UNI goal line.
It's a different kind of kick with a different drop from his hands to the foot. It causes the ball to spin end-over-end instead of the sailing spiral of a traditional punt and on two occasions the ball went backward when it landed inside the 5-yard line.
"When it hits the ground, it's supposed to bounce up or bounce backward," LeCompte said.
"Show up on Mondays," Bison head coach Chris Klieman immediately countered with a smile. "It doesn't always bounce back."
Of LeCompte's six punts, five ended up inside the 20-yard line and three were inside the 7. The last was the most damaging, a high punt that NDSU's Darrius Shepherd saved at around the 1, only to see UNI's Deiondre' Hall take it a couple of yards to the 7. On the next play, Bison defensive tackle Brian Schaetz sacked UNI quarterback Aaron Bailey for a safety to make it a two-possession game at 23-13 with 2:57 remaining.
It was about at that point that the NCAA ordered a charter for University of Richmond in Richmond, Va., for the semifinals next weekend at the dome.
"Anytime you can help your defense out and put them in position to score, it's unbelievable," said LeCompte said, crediting his long snapper James Fisher and assistant coach Tim Polasek. "And the coverage team, I told them at one point, guys, if it's coming down in the air, catch it in the air. And you saw a bunch of young guys on the punt coverage team grow up right before our eyes."
We're seeing a true freshman kickoff return guy/running back grow up before our eyes, also. If LeCompte wasn't so spot on, Bruce Anderson may have gotten some ESPN air time. His 97-yard kickoff return to start the second half was the difference on the scoreboard.
The halftime talk by Klieman included a demand that somebody make a play.
"I didn't know it would be in the first six seconds," he said, "but it was a big-time run."
UNI head coach Mark Farley referenced the kickoff more than once on the key of the second half. Anderson took the kick, darted straight up the middle, veered right toward the sideline and squirmed away from Makinton Dorleant with a spin move. A couple of Dorleant's teammates didn't exactly help and Anderson broke free down the right sideline.
It was his second straight game taking a kickoff to the house.
"I think it's confidence," Anderson said. "I've trusted the guys up front every week but I'm gaining confidence and able to hit it faster."
LeCompte's been a confident guy for four years now, and became the first punter in a post-game press conference since Mike Dragosavich showed up with an ice pack on his shoulder after completing a pass off a fake punt during the Division I reclassification era. It was probably LeCompte's finest hours since the Georgia Southern semifinal game in 2012 when three of his four punts were for more than 50 yards.
LeCompte admitted Richmond's win over Illinois State was on his mind most of the morning. It meant an NDSU win would keep the Bison at home in the semifinals instead of traveling to Normal, Ill.
"I know we shouldn't have be thinking about it but I saw that Illinois State went down last night and I knew we had another opportunity for a home game," he said. "Any senior can speak for it, we don't want to let it go. Just to have that in the back of my mind that we want another game at home and I guess that was the motivation today."