North Dakota State rides special teams to FCS title game
FARGO, N.D. (AP) North Dakota State's quest to win its fifth straight title without standout quarterback Carson Wentz is alive in no small part because of its special teams.
Punter and kickoff specialist Ben LeCompte, kickoff return man Bruce Anderson and punt returner Eric Perkins have been perhaps the best playoff weapons for the Bison (12-2), who face top-seeded Jacksonville State (13-1) in Saturday's Football Championship Subdivision finale in Frisco, Texas.
LeCompte said it's not an accident.
''There's an attention to detail given to special teams here that I would say rivals any of the top-level programs in the country,'' said LeCompte, a second team AP All-America pick and NFL hopeful. ''The coaching staff leaves no stone unturned. They are going to make sure that if we go out there on a national stage with the opportunity to succeed, it's not going to be special teams that let us down.''
LeCompte has consistently left opponents with unfavorable field position, both with his punts and kickoffs. Against Northern Iowa, which proved to be North Dakota State's toughest playoff test, he averaged 45 yards on six punts with five inside the 20. Two were inside the 10, including one that led to a safety.
Anderson returned kickoffs for touchdowns on successive weeks against Montana and Northern Iowa, and then opened the semifinal game against Richmond with a 31-yard return that led to a quick score. He has averaged 45 yards on nine returns over the past five games. Perkins' longest punt returns have come in the playoffs and scored on an 88-yarder in the Richmond game.
The trio has picked up the slack for freshman placekicker Cam Pedersen, who has missed six of his last seven field goal attempts. LeCompte, who started the season as North Dakota State's placekicker, said he has spent the break between playoff games helping Pedersen, breaking down attempts frame-by-frame on an app on LeCompte's mobile phone.
''Give Cam a lot of credit for stepping in as a young 18-year-old kid and doing what he did this year,'' LeCompte said. ''He has been money. He has missed one PAT all year. You have to look at what he's done and take with a grain of salt because, yes, he has faced some adversity this past couple of weeks but he has hit some kicks that have won games for us.''
The Bison also have received points from their defense, which has scored on two interception returns and a safety in the postseason.
That adds up to 32 points from defense and special teams in three playoff games.
Defensive lineman Brian Schaetz said those figures show the importance of a group effort, especially in the absence of Wentz, an NFL prospect sidelined since the middle of October with a broken wrist.
''That says we are a program that is here to stay,'' Schaetz said. ''We're working hard every day to become a better team and it doesn't matter who's in what spot.''
Coach Chris Klieman has been coy about whether Wentz will play in the championship. Klieman told reporters Monday that Wentz is progressing, but said ''you guys will all find out on Saturday'' if he's ready to take the helm.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Easton Stick, who is 8-0 as a starter, said it has been one of his ''personal goals'' to help Wentz get back on the field.
''If he's able to play, I hope he plays. If he is able to help us, I hope he helps us,'' Stick said. ''We're just trying to win the next one and really, that's what it comes down to as a team.''