FARGO-After a two-year road trip in the state of South Dakota, the Dakota Marker found its way across the border on Saturday afternoon, Sept. 29. North Dakota State offensive guard Colin Conner did the honors of walking it off Gate City Bank Field, holding it over his shoulder like it was a broken stick.
The thing is solid quartzite and weighs 75 pounds. The Bison defeated South Dakota State 21-17 before 18,846 fans who for the first time found a reason to stay until the final bell. NDSU's first three non-conference victories were essentially decided by halftime.
But this is the Missouri Valley Football Conference, where physical play is the norm. And this was the Marker game, where tight games and athletic plays are common.
You can point to Bison quarterback Easton Stick and his clutch runs and two touchdown passes as the player of the game. Senior receiver Darrius Shepherd had a career-high 118 yards with his five receptions.
On defense? Linebacker Dan Marlette made a couple big stops late and fellow linebacker Jabril Cox was all over the field again. All viable candidates to talk about around the proverbial water cooler.
I give you one more.
Garret Wegner. He's the Bison punter if you're still unsure of that name and he was lights out against the Jackrabbits. He was a difference-maker to the point he unofficially became the first NDSU punter to be part of a post-game interview since ESPN talked with Ben LeCompte after the 2015 FCS quarterfinals against Northern Iowa.
"We knew coming in that special teams was going to have a big impact on the game," Wegner said. "I just went out there trying to do my best to do my part. Most of the day I was pretty confident and that really helps."
Wegner had five punts for a 47.4-yard average. One late in the second half traveled 49 yards and went out of bounds at the SDSU 2-yard line. It preserved a 14-7 Bison halftime lead.
His last boot late in the game was a thing of beauty. Leading 21-17, NDSU reached to near midfield and had the look of a team ready to put the Jackrabbits away.
But Stick was sacked on third-and-6 at his own 39, bringing on the Bison punt team with 5 minutes, 41 seconds remaining. A shanked punt there and NDSU gives Jackrabbits quarterback Taryn Christion five-plus minutes to engineer a go-ahead touchdown drive.
But Wegner crushed it, like a Tiger Woods drive. Fifty-four yards. Better yet for his team, redshirt freshman Michael Tutsie tackled return man Marshon Harris at the 7.
"That was a Ben LeCompte-type play," said Bison head coach Chris Klieman. "He banged it."
Said Wegner: "That's a huge compliment, everybody here knows and loves Ben. He was a great player. I'm not comparing myself to Ben at all, yet, but hopefully I continue to get better. It was a pretty good day today."
Traveling 93 yards in the Missouri Valley Football Conference is tough for anybody.
"Now we have to go the length of the field," said SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier. "You still have to get a first down coming out of there, so maybe that does put more pressure on you."
Running back Isaac Wallace gained five yards on first down, an acceptable gain to start a drive. But Bison safety Robbie Grimsley stopped Wallace on second down for no gain. On third-and-5, Wallace took a swing pass from Christion but Marlette, in space, ran Wallace down for a loss of one yard.
SDSU punted with 3:32 left, and the Bison ran out the clock.
Give the assist on all those plays to Wegner.
"It goes back to the field position game," Wegner said.
As usual with NDSU and SDSU, it was a chess game. The Jackrabbits gave NDSU what Marlette called some "funky stuff" in the first quarter and SDSU threatened to put the Bison in an early hole. The Bison came back with some funky stuff of their own when cornerback Jalen Allison, presumably disguising positions, picked off Christion in the end zone. Christion said he didn't see the "backside safety" coming over.
In the end, however, Wegner's punt was "check."
The Bison running out the clock with two first downs was "checkmate."