December 04, 2015

(STATS) - Escaping a pocket that's filled with pass rushers must seem easy to North Dakota State quarterback Easton Stick when compared to stepping out of Carson Wentz's shadow.

The redshirt freshman was never supposed to have a leading role for a team that's in pursuit of a record fifth straight FCS national championship. He was supposed to be the future behind center with the All-American and NFL prospect Wentz leading the Bison charge like a year ago.

Once Wentz was sidelined by a broken wrist in mid-October, Stick was forced into the starting role, asked to quickly gain a comfort level but more to manage the offense and avoid mistakes.

A month and a half later, Stick has won each of his five starts and is not playing like a young signal-caller in need of being eased out of bubble wrap.

With third-seeded NDSU (9-2) jumping into the playoffs Saturday against a red-hot Montana squad (8-4 with four straight wins) that beat the Bison in a memorable first game of the season, the future has to be now for the 20-year-old Stick.

And for the Bison.

"Easton's done a phenomenal job of stepping in after six games and leading us to five straight victories," second-year coach Chris Klieman said. "My hat's off to Easton as well as all the offensive coaches, all the offensive players for rallying about that young quarterback that we've been able to do some pretty good things offensively."

While many were taking deep breaths after Stick started directing the offense, something else was happening. The mobile 6-foot-2, 215-pounder, who has both a quick arm and feet, wasn't just avoiding mistakes, he was making plays for the Bison, who earned a share of their fifth straight Missouri Valley Football Conference title.

In the five wins, Stick accounted for 15 touchdowns (11 passing, four rushing) and turned the ball over only twice (two interceptions; his only fumble was not lost). Three of his first four games were on the road, and that included a rally from 14 points down after three quarters at Youngstown State with a game-winning 4-yard touchdown run with 35 seconds left.

Earlier this week, Stick was named to the MVFC's all-newcomer team.

"He can do everything to be honest with you despite the fact that he's young," Klieman said. "He's a really smart kid, a really cerebral kid. He's been pretty much preparing for this opportunity for two years. We traveled him on all the games last year as a true freshman, so he was in on the game plans. He mimics Carson Wentz as far as how he probably prepares for a game. So I knew this stage wasn't going to be too big for him. He's an extremely good athlete, he has a special arm, he's really good in and out of the pocket. I think he's probably underrated as a thrower."

"Easton," seconded Montana coach Bob Stitt, "can throw it. He can zip it."

The Bison have averaged 40.8 points and 478.6 yards the last five games. Stick has completed 57 of 95 attempts (60.0 percent) for 826 yards and rushed for 399 yards on 59 carries (his first three career carries went for 24 yards in mop-up duty against Weber State in September).

The Bison, like so often, controlled the game clock with their vaunted run game in the 38-35 loss at Montana on Aug. 29 and will try to do the same Saturday at home against the Grizzlies' veteran defense. In fact, Klieman says his offense is not looking to "reinvent the wheel" with the game plan.

But the Bison want to keep their motor running, and they're quite content to give Stick the keys to the offense.

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