(STATS) - Replacing one of the best quarterbacks in FCS with an untested redshirt freshman could have derailed North Dakota State's chances for the Missouri Valley Conference title and fifth consecutive national championship.
Easton Stick, though, hasn't had any trouble sliding into his new role since taking over for Carson Wentz, who had surgery Oct. 21 to repair a broken right wrist suffered in a 24-21 loss to South Dakota four days earlier that snapped the Bison's 26-game home winning streak.
NDSU (7-2, 5-1) has won all three games with Stick as the starter, moving up to No. 2 in the STATS FCS Top 25 and into a tie atop the MVC with Illinois State. Stick threw for four touchdowns and ran for 86 yards in last week's 59-7 victory over Western Illinois and has completed 59.7 percent of his passes with seven TDs and two interceptions.
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He's also rushed for 340 yards and two touchdowns in his starts. With Wentz presumably out for the remainder of the season, coach Chris Klieman is confident Stick can continue performing at a high level in the final two regular-season games and into the playoffs.
The Bison this week visit No. 20 Youngstown State (5-4, 3-3), which could use a signature win to boost its chances of being selected for the 24-team field.
"There are so many teams vying for playoff position, so many teams vying for a conference championship, and the parity in (the Missouri Valley) is tremendous," Klieman said. "We're hoping that gets rewarded come the end of November, but there's a couple big games coming up before that announcement is made."
The Penguins have won two straight following a three-game skid, beating Western Illinois 23-21 on Oct. 31 before last week's 47-7 trouncing of Missouri State. They put together another solid defensive effort last Saturday, holding the Bears to 107 total yards.
Youngstown State ranks eighth in the nation in yards allowed per game at 278.0 and has held five opponents to fewer than 300. Coach Bo Pelini knows his squad is in for a difficult test this week against the Bison, who have totaled more than 500 in each of the last two games.
"Obviously Carson Wentz is a heck of a football player, but I think Stick is a great player in his own right," Pelini said. "He's really stepped in and shown leadership. His ability to throw the football, run the football - they really haven't broken their stride.
"North Dakota State is the benchmark," Pelini said. "They're what other teams in (FCS) are trying to be."
Sixth-ranked Illinois State (7-2, 5-1) had its chance to knock off the Bison in last season's national championship game, but it won't get a shot at NDSU this season unless the MVC powerhouses meet in the playoffs again.
The Redbirds were in control of the conference race until suffering their first FCS defeat last week.
Illinois State had been alone atop the Missouri Valley since NDSU's loss nearly a month ago, but suddenly finds itself in a tight battle after losing 25-20 at South Dakota State.
It hadn't lost since falling 31-14 at Iowa in the season opener Sept. 5, which also marked the only other time this season Marshaun Coprich was held to fewer than 100 yards. He finished with 55 on 22 carries, just the second time in his last 23 FCS games he's failed to hit the century mark.
Coprich and the rest of the Redbirds will look to bounce back Saturday at Southern Illinois. ISU won last year's meeting 44-29 as Coprich ran for 160 yards and two TDs and Tre Roberson tossed three touchdown passes while finishing with 413 total yards.
This matchup could be much closer, though. The Salukis (3-6, 2-4) haven't lost by more than six points this season, with five defeats coming by three or fewer.
"The sign of a good football team is to win those close games in the fourth quarter, and that's exactly what we've been struggling with," coach Dale Lennon said. "The morale of our program is still very high and we still feel like we have something to prove. With what Illinois State has done, it's going to be a big, big challenge. They have the complete package."
Although Coprich struggled last week, Roberson threw for 327 yards and tossed three touchdowns to Anthony Warrum, who finished with career highs of eight catches and 241 yards.
Warrum has had a breakout junior season, ranking third in FCS with 1,031 yards and third with 13 touchdowns. His average 24.0 yards per catch also ranks second.
"(Warrum) sure has helped to open up our offense," coach Brock Spack said. "He's really developed his skills as a route runner. We're really happy with him."
JACKRABBITS STILL IN THE MIX=
South Dakota State's win over Illinois State last week pushed it up to No. 5 in the STATS FCS Top 25 and pulled it to within a game of the Redbirds and Bison in the conference race.
The Jackrabbits (7-2, 4-2) have been successful in using a two-quarterback system, with pocket-passing junior Zach Lujan and dual-threat freshman Taryn Christion complementing each other. SDSU has won back-to-back games, as Lujan threw for a pair of touchdowns in a win over Missouri State on Oct. 31 before Christion finished with 372 total yards and three touchdowns against Illinois State.
Christion left with 18 seconds remaining in the first half, and Lujan tossed a 14-yard TD pass to the FCS's leading receiver Jake Wieneke on the next snap before Christion returned to start the third quarter.
But no matter the success to this point, Jackrabbits coach John Stiegelmeier knows better than to look past South Dakota (5-4, 3-3). The Coyotes are fighting to impress the playoff selection committee with another signature win, already boasting a 24-21 upset victory at North Dakota State on Oct. 17.
"It opened the eyes of people nationally because of North Dakota State's success," Stiegelmeier said. "We don't talk about that. We talk about what we see on film and not who they beat. The comparison is on the field come Saturday."
South Dakota has won three of four after beating Southern Illinois 34-31 last week behind Ryan Saeger's three TD passes.