FARGO-If North Dakota State was hesitant earlier in the Missouri Valley Football Conference season to use the duo-threat capabilities of quarterback Easton Stick, they've shelved that philosophy in the Division I FCS playoffs. All options appear to be on the table.
The sophomore was virtually spot-on with his running ability and spiced in a few passes, some of which were of the Carson Wentz bullet variety, in Saturday's 36-10 quarterfinal win over South Dakota State. He led the Bison in rushing attempts with a season-high 16 and turned that into 83 yards and two touchdowns-an effort that gave NDSU a semifinal date with James Madison University Friday night at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.
"His game is just getting better and better," said Bison assistant coach Randy Hedberg, who works with the quarterbacks.
Stick improved to 20-1 as a starter that includes three wins in last year's playoffs before Wentz returned for the title game against Jacksonville State. He's also apparently put behind a back ailment that head coach Chris Klieman said affected him for a handful of games late in the regular season.
"It comes back to practice, he's practiced so well in the last month of the season," Hedberg said. "I think he's come a long way in the last month."
Part of that is mechanics, Hedberg said. Stick is getting the ball out of his hand quicker and continues to understand the passing game schemes.
His understanding of the schemes must be especially sharp on third down lately. The Bison were 10 of 13 on that down against the Jackrabbits. Most impressive: Converting 6 of 6 on third down in a 20-play drive in the second quarter that gave NDSU the lead for good at 14-10.
"The quarterback dictates third down," Hedberg said. "Carson was exceptional at it. A lot of it goes on your quarterback in that they have to make good decisions. I think he did a nice job of that with the down and distance."
Stick averaged 5.2 yards per carry with a long run of 17 yards. In the air, he was 12 of 21 for 18 yards and one touchdown, with his passing yardage being 33 yards more than SDSU quarterback Taryn Christion, the Valley's Offensive Player of the Year.
Hedberg said Stick's ability to throw the deep ball has always been pretty good, but improvement lately has come with the intermediate routes. His 67-yard touchdown pass to Darrius Shepherd, for instance, came on a swing pass that Shepherd caught in stride, got a block on the outside, and outsprinted the SDSU secondary.
Stick needed only four carries to gain 99 yards against the University of San Diego in the second-round victory. He started the season with 11, 10 and 11 attempts in each of the first three nonconference games against Charleston Southern, Eastern Washington and Iowa.
The only time he had double digit in rushing attempts in Valley play was 12 against SDSU with the other seven games all between four and seven rushing attempts.
Part of the reason for the 16 carries on Saturday, Hedberg said, was because of the way the Jackrabbits defended. The Bison also tapped a valuable running threat with Stick, a 6-foot-2 and 222-pounder with quickness.
A threat that looks like it's available at any down.
No. 5 James Madison at No. 3 North Dakota State
Where: Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome
When: 6 p.m. Friday
TV: ESPN2. Radio: 107.9-FM