McFeely: Payton voters owe Stick a good, long look
VERMILLION, S.D. — Easton Stick became the North Dakota State record holder for touchdown passes in a career Saturday when he threw three against the overmatched University of South Dakota Coyotes. That gives him 73 for his career, besting the legendary Brock Jensen by one. And the Bison have at least four games left in this, his senior season.
That makes Stick, if there was any question, one of the best quarterbacks in the history of what might stand as the best Division I FCS program in history.
Funny thing, though: There is little chance Stick will be one of three finalists for the Walter Payton Award, given to the top FCS offensive player of the year. There is an even smaller chance, of course, the Bison quarterback will be handed the award in Frisco, Texas, the week of the national title game.
It almost feels like Stick isn't even going to be in the conversation as the FCS season winds down. He is on the Payton Award watch list, but so are many others. But he is not the splashiest, not the most buzzworthy, not the trendiest pick as one of the nation's best players in the division. Even on his own team, running back Bruce Anderson drew more early-season attention.
That's too bad.
After watching Stick -- again -- carve up a Missouri Valley Football Conference opponent like a master chef working the cutlery in the Bison's 59-14 beatdown of South Dakota at the DakotaDome, it's time maybe the guy gets a little national love.
At the risk of sounding like a homer, would somebody please start giving Stick the credit he deserves for being one of the best players in FCS? Would you at least consider him worthy of winning the Payton Award? I mean, he is the best offensive player on the best team in the country.
Stick was as magnificent as always against the Coyotes. He went 12 of 19 passing for 176 yards and three touchdowns. He ran for 79 yards and two touchdowns, including a jaw-dropping 47-yarder in the third quarter that provided the punctuation for the day. Stick delivered several perfect throws, including a 53-yard deep ball to Darrius Sheperd and a 15-yard laser to tight end Ben Ellefson for the Bison's first score.
"Another great performance by the best player in FCS," Bison head coach Chris Klieman said. "I'm convinced of that. I know there are a lot of other great players and I'm sure their head coaches would say the same thing, but watching how he's prepared every game and watching how he handles all adversity, he's just a phenomenal football player. hope everybody appreciates watching him operate because it is a lot of fun."
And that maybe is the key when it comes to Stick's chances of being seriously considered for the Payton Award.
The finalists are selected by a panel from STATS FCS, the nationally known website that covers FCS. The winner is determined by a vote of the 160 people who vote on the STATS FCS Top 25 poll each week.
How many of those people have seen Stick play? How many look only at the gaudy statistics of other players to make their determination?
That's the nature of the award, much like the Heisman Trophy at the FBS level. The winner is always going to be the player with the statistics that say, "Wow." Stick, as was the case with Bison quarterbacks in the past, don't have statistics that say, "Wow."
Before Saturday's game, Stick ranked 63rd among FCS quarterbacks in passing yardage and 50th in touchdown passes.
"The biggest wow number is that he wins all the time," Klieman said. "He prepares himself so well. He is responsible for so many of our touchdowns, running or throwing. It's just the nature of our offense. We're not going to throw it 55 times. We're not built for that. We want to run the football and having the quarterback run game is a huge element to what we do. What he does running the football is as good as most backs can do."
Stick, being Stick, professes not to care about such things as records, stats and awards. He's being genuine. The bottom line for him has always been winning. Here's another record the Payton voters might be interested in: If NDSU wins the rest of its games and finishes 15-0 with Stick at QB, he will become the winningest quarterback in FCS history with 49 victories. That, too, would be a mark he'd take away from Jensen.
Stick is as quotable as his mentor and predecessor at NDSU, Carson Wentz, which means not at all. His words are measured and any question directed at him about him will be swiftly deflected into praise of the team or his teammates. Yes, it's as dry as a saltine but it works.
The results speak for themselves. Stick's improvement since he was the redshirt freshman who filled in for Wentz for eight games (going 8-0) is remarkable. He is a more dangerous, stronger runner. And while he cannot be compared to Wentz when it comes to arm strength or sheer size, Stick is making throws now that few others in FCS can make. He zipped a 9-yard pass to Ty Brooks in the second quarter that went from the right hash to the left sideline on a rope.
"What you want the great quarterbacks to do is make everybody around them better," said USD coach Bob Nielson, who last year saw his QB Chris Streveler become a Payton Award finalist. "From an opposing coach standpoint, I'd say he does that."
Stick will not get the numbers or the publicity like other terrific FCS players like quarterbacks Devlin Hodges of Samford, Taryn Christion of South Dakota State or Chandler Burks of Kennesaw State. He won't be the popular pick like Cal Davis receiver Keelan Doss.
But do Stick a favor, STATS FCS panelists and voters. Go to ESPN Plus and call up Saturday's game against the Coyotes. Maybe even some other games. And then, like his coach suggests, appreciate what you are seeing when you watch Stick.