North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz (11) warms up before the start of their NCAA college football game against Montana Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015, in Missoula, in Mont. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Rick Bowmer
December 09, 2015

(STATS) - Chris Klieman stepped to the podium in a suit and tie for his weekly press conference and proceeded to speak in his usual straight-forward manner. He addressed questions directly and answered them honestly, as expected.

Then, the North Dakota State coach offered a twist all on his own - Carson Wentz might play when the third-seeded Bison host Missouri Valley Conference rival Northern Iowa in an FCS quarterfinal Saturday.

Suddenly, Klieman became vague when pressed. Everyone wanted to know more.

Does this mean that after sitting out six games with a broken wrist that Wentz will replace redshirt freshman Easton Stick if he's fully recovered? Even though Stick has guided the second-ranked Bison (10-2) to victories in each game he's started?

When will Klieman make a decision? How good does Wentz have to look in practice to make the call? Will that call come before Saturday?

It seems everyone, including the No. 15 Panthers (9-4), will have to wait to see if Wentz trots onto the Fargodome field in uniform.

"Carson threw last week, and we're going to progress him into some practice this week," Klieman said. "I'm not saying he's going to play, but he's going to practice. The brace is off his arm, and how much he's able to progress this week, we'll find out. We'll see what happens."

It seems only fair that Wentz could get a shot. He guided NDSU to its fourth consecutive national championship last season, and he threw four touchdowns in a 31-28 victory over visiting Northern Iowa on Oct. 10.

The last was an 18-yard strike to Darrius Shepherd with 35 seconds remaining that resulted in the winning score. But after Wentz got hurt the following week in a loss to South Dakota, the Bison turned to Stick and adjusted their offense to suit him.

They attempted at least 27 passes in each game with Wentz, but Stick hasn't thrown more than 20. He went 7 for 13 for 66 yards - the fewest the Bison have had through the air since 2010 - as NDSU rushed for 250 yards on 56 attempts in last week's 37-6 second-round win over Montana.

North Dakota State's approach this week might depend on who is under center.

"Don't get me wrong, we're not going to go in there and throw the thing 55 times, because that's just not what we do to be successful," Klieman said. "But we need to have more balance for sure."

The Panthers aren't hiding their offensive game plan - run, run and run some more.

Aaron Bailey hasn't completed more than 16 passes in a game, but he's rushed for at least 131 yards on six occasions. Four of those have come during UNI's seven-game winning streak, and one of the others was a 157-yard effort against NDSU.

The Illinois transfer had his best rushing performance in last week's 29-17 win at sixth-seeded Portland State, running 26 times for 200 yards and two touchdowns.

"We've fought our way into a good position right now and we're playing good football," coach Mark Farley said. "The Portland State game, with the trip and everything that was included, I really thought that we came out focused."

Klieman's dilemma is how to not only slow Bailey but also Tyvis Smith, who ran for 207 yards and two scores last week. Smith, who didn't play in the first meeting, rushed for at least 143 yards in each of the last four while scoring five touchdowns and averaging 7.9 yards per carry.

"We have to do a great job of being able to neutralize the running game as much as we can," Klieman said. "Whether that's once in awhile trying to take Bailey out, once in awhile trying to take Smith out, we have to be able to change that up. If they lock in on what we're doing, they're going to beat us the other way."

And Northern Iowa does have experience beating North Dakota State. The Panthers dealt the Bison their only loss last season, snapping NDSU's 33-game winning streak.

Bailey's 83-yard touchdown run in this year's meeting put UNI up by four with 7:31 left before Wentz brought the Bison back. The Panthers know they can hang with the reigning four-time national champions, but Farley isn't much for bringing up the past.

"A great motivational speech (about) revenge, all that stuff, lasts for about a play," Farley said. "It comes down to players understanding where they're supposed to play because once there's some wear and tear in the game, things settle out and (it becomes) the battles that are out on the field that will decide the game."

Klieman, who was an assistant at Northern Iowa for nine years before coming to NDSU, feels the same as his counterpart. The winner advances to the semifinals to face second-seeded Illinois State or Richmond.

"It's going to be a four-quarter game," he said. "These two teams know each other pretty well. There's great talent on both sides."

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