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Jeff Kolpack, Published November 16 2012

Luecke ready for first start today

FARGO – The plan for Danny Luecke was to walk on to the North Dakota State football team and help the program any way he could. Today, the Bison need his help more than ever.

The junior from Fargo South will get his first career start against Illinois State, a game that could give NDSU an outright Missouri Valley Football Conference title. Moreover, a win would almost guarantee a top two seed in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

“That makes it more exciting being a team game,” Luecke said. “Being around your teammates and what we’ve done together and what we hope to accomplish, it wouldn’t be the same without the people around you.”

He’ll take the place of junior Leevon Perry, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last week against South Dakota State. It’s a role reversal in one sense because Luecke came back from the same injury.

“Yeah, there’s a little irony there,” he said. “I’ve always worked hard, hoping for an opportunity like this.”

Luecke had a career game last week with five tackles in a 20-17 win over SDSU. That included being in on a quarterback sack. His season highlight was helping force a Colorado State safety in the second game of the season.

“Danny’s been playing dynamite,” said NDSU defensive coordinator Chris Klieman.

Schaetz returns to help defense

Also helping with depth in the wake of Perry’s injury is the return of defensive tackle Brian Schaetz, who has been out with a PCL injury to his knee. It happened in the Southern Illinois game three weeks ago when he landed awkwardly on it.

Like Luecke, Schaetz is a walk-on who has made his contributions felt.

“Without Leevon, it’s a tough situation but that’s what Bison football is all about,” Schaetz said. “You live and die with situations like that.”

The Bison have made it a practice in the last few years of making the noseguard/defensive tackle spot interchangeable. Ryan Drevlow will start at noseguard with Justin Juckem backing him up. Both have plenty of experience.

NDSU has also used Mike Hardie in a tackle spot in pass-rushing situations.

“It’s about creating depth,” Schaetz said. “You’re put on the spot every day and that’s what makes our defense work.”

Vraa, passing game adjusting

It’s been a slow return to the lineup for sophomore receiver Zach Vraa. He was the team’s leading receiver when he separated his shoulder Oct. 13 against Indiana State.

He got back in the lineup two weeks ago, but has just once catch – a six-yarder against South Dakota State.

“It’s been a little tough getting used to the whole thing,” Vraa said. “Getting my hands all the way up to catch has been a slow process, but I feel I’m at the point now where I can do almost everything I did before.”

As a whole, the passing game has slowed from earlier the season, also. Missouri State and SDSU appeared to cause some confusion dropping eight defenders into pass coverage at times.

“That takes away just about every gap on the field,” Vraa said. “Our job is to get open and find holes in the defense.”

Offensive coordinator Brent Vigen said opposing teams give NDSU different looks every week and there hasn’t been anything out of the ordinary. The Bison countered the eight defensive backs against SDSU with more running plays for quarterback Brock Jensen.

“That was our adjustment as much as anything in the second half was to run on third-down situations and fortunately it was a success for us,” Vigen said. “It’s a fine give and take. Now, our next opponents will have to look at the plusses and minuses of how many guys they want to bring.”

ISU stadium under major renovation

A win today and Illinois State would claim a share of the conference title for the first time since 1999. With No. 1-ranked NDSU coming to town, “you have the perfect storm right now and a lot of energy,” said ISU head coach Brock Spack.

“It’s going to be fun on Saturday, the fans deserve a conference title here,” linebacker Mike Zimmer told the Pantagraph newspaper. “We’ve been working very hard the past four years. To have that opportunity to do it at home is a real special thing.”

Hancock Stadium won’t be at capacity, however, because the facility is going through a major renovation. One entire side is being overhauled leaving the seating at just 7,700.

The $25 million project will include skyboxes and a press box.

“We arguably had the worst stadium in the conference,” Spack said. “It will be a nice addition to the university because it’s been an eyesore. We have a beautiful campus and now, with a nice brick facade, it will be a gateway to our university.”

The new capacity when NDSU returns in two years will be 15,000.

Redbirds in the playoff hunt

The Redbirds felt they should have made the FCS playoffs last year at 7-4. Already

8-2, they are virtually assured of making the 20-team field this year.

They were 6-5 in 2009 and 2010.

“We’re better defensively and we continue to get better defensively,” Spack said. “We were woeful a couple of years ago. Statistically, we’re not as good as a year ago, but we’re playing better on defense than a year ago if that makes sense.”

Now in his fourth season, ISU has put together four straight winning seasons for the first time since 1945-48.

Etc. etc. etc.

Bison punter Ben LeCompte was named the College Sports Journal FCS special teams freshman of the week for his

49.8-yard average in five punts last week against South Dakota State. His long of 63 yards helped with field position late in the game. … NDSU noseguard Ryan Drevlow was named to the Capital One Division I Academic All-District 6 football team by the country’s sports information directors. Drevlow, who carries a 3.66 grade-point average in electrical engineering, advances to the national ballot.

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546.

Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia