McFeely: Stick, along with Shepherd, too much for SDSU to handle
Easton Stick and Darrius Shepherd have something special going for top-ranked North Dakota State, of that there is little doubt. The senior quarterback and senior receiver connected five times Saturday in the Bison's 21-17 victory over South Dakota State, including an electric 41-yard touchdown play that included a missile-like pass from Stick and a missile-like run from Shepherd.
"He's a big-time player for us. Explosive player and we have to find ways to get him the ball," Stick said.
The question, still, is who else can Stick rely on to make the biggest plays when it counts in the biggest games?
There are options, but the most obvious answer was evident—again—against the third-ranked Jackrabbits.
You might know him. The kid's name is Easton Stick.
The Bison's dual-threat quarterback outdid SDSU dual-threat quarterback Taryn Christion by running for key first down after key first down, including a pair of third-down conversions on the game's final drive that sealed the Bison victory. NDSU was 8 of 16 on third down and Jackrabbits head coach John Stiegelmeier knew exactly how many of those were credited to Stick.
"I think four of those eight were Easton Stick. So huge. Huge," Stiegelmeier said. "We knew that going in. It's a chess game. You call the defense to spy him, maybe he doesn't get it. And we didn't."
Maybe they should have. Stick crushed SDSU's hopes by running for six yards on third and 5 from the Jackrabbits 49 with two minutes left and three plays later dashed for nine yards on third and six from the Jackrabbits 39 with 90 seconds remaining. Game over.
If SDSU stops NDSU on either of those third-down plays, its dynamic offense has a chance for late-game heroics. Instead, it was the Bison players rushing to the Fargodome's northwest corner to hoist the Dakota Marker.
"On the third down play to seal the game, we ran the same play two times in a row and they called time out and I said, 'Just pull it. Make a play. Do what you do,'" Bison head coach Chris Klieman said. "And he pulled it and made a guy miss and got a first down."
If those plays are meat-and-potato Easton, the quarterback's wild sprint for a first down in the second quarter was fancy French cuisine Easton.
After having a touchdown pass to Shepherd called back because of an offensive pass interference penalty, the Bison faced third and 21 from SDSU's 39. Stick dropped back to throw, but darted from the pocket and began weaving his way past and around Jackrabbits defenders. By the time he was done running across the field toward the SDSU bench, he snuck out of bounds just out of the reach of cornerback Zy Mosley at the 17.
That's easy math: 22 yards and a first down.
Stick zipped another missile to tight end Ben Ellefson for a touchdown on the next play to tie the game 7-7.
It was a play that perhaps two quarterbacks in Division I Football Championship Subdivision could make—and they were both in the dome Saturday.
"He's an overall great player. Makes a lot of good reads. He's a quick kid, very fast," SDSU defensive end Ryan Earith said. "He makes it tough on the front four. It's tough to contain him in there, to slow him down."
Stick led the Bison with 63 yards on 15 carries. He was 9 of 20 for 182 yards and an interception passing. If you only saw the boxscore, you might think Stick didn't have a great game.
But so many of the plays he made were critical. Stick's mobility allows him to escape pressure, avoid a sack and throw a pass out of bounds. It goes down as a simple incompletion, when in truth it saves the Bison 10 yards and keeps the first-down marker in sight.
"We wanted to put the ball in his hands," Klieman said. "He's a special player. There were some critical plays that he made there with his feet."
There will be more Stick-to-Shepherd connections, no question. Running backs Bruce Anderson, Lance Dunn and Ty Brooks will be unleashed at some point. And Ellefson shows signs of being a big playmaker.
But NDSU opponents would be wise to not sleep on Stick and those sweet legs of his. They need only watch tape of the SDSU game to be reminded.