Well, it was homecoming on Saturday for Christian Watson. He got to see an old friend at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.
The North Dakota State standout receiver had a career day, and that was in the first half alone. The return of NDSU’s most dynamic playmaker to the end zone fueled a 34-20 victory over Northern Iowa, the back end of a key two-game stretch that has the Bison at 5-0 overall and 2-0 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
For that to continue, the Bison would do well to continue to feed Watson. It didn’t happen last week in the victory at the University of North Dakota; Watson had zero catches and zero carries, getting targeted just once.
Keep in mind, Watson said all the right things this week. He called it an eye opener and his team had to get better from it. He threw no Keyshawn Johnson “just give me the damn ball” tantrums, in reference to the famous line from the former New York Jets receiver.
Instead, Patterson threw him the ball and he was damn good at catching it and running with it.
“I’ll never complain with the more opportunities that I get,” Watson said. “I think we were solid in our execution, it opened our playbook more and we were able to get me the ball more. All I can say is I was excited.”
Watson had five receptions for a career-high 163 yards including an 85-yard thing of beauty, the second time this season he and quarterback Quincy Patterson have hooked up for a home-run ball. It was reminiscent of bombs he hauled in from Trey Lance in 2019.
In five games, Patterson has shown a similar arm strength of Lance.
“It shows what kind of talent we’ve been able to bring here at NDSU,” Watson said. “Trey made a name for himself and has gone on to bigger and better things and Q has come in and filled those shoes. He continues to get better every week.”
The Bison didn’t waste time getting Watson into the flow. Their first play of the game was a five-yard out pass. It was one more reception and five more yards than he had against UND.
The explosion came two possessions later. After two straight three-and-outs, the Bison didn’t mess around. With the ball at their own 15-yard line, Patterson lofted a perfect bomb to Watson down the middle and the 85-yard scoring play made it 7-0.
“I can’t be 100% sure, but I think it was blown coverage,” Watson said. “I saw green grass and took it. I just ran under it and it was all she wrote.”
He was 100% right.
“Early on, we busted a few coverages right away and I think they got 10 quick ones right out of the gate," said UNI defensive back Korby Sander.
Despite the dazzling Watson first half, the halftime lead was only 13-10, in part to NDSU’s issues of scoring within sight of the end zone. That common cold hampered the Bison last week at UND and two trips inside the 10-yard line against the Panthers in the first half produced two field goals.
“At halftime, that was one thing I talked to the team about, we’re not consistent in the red zone,” said Bison head coach Matt Entz. “How different the game can be if you’re able to capitalize two out of the three with touchdowns. That’s why we’re going to go to practice. I’m excited. I told this team, super excited about the win, what I’m even more excited about is I’m not sure where the ceiling is for the group. We beat a good football team today and we’re here talking about things we can get better at.”
NDSU found the remedy in the second half. Jayden Price’s 41-yard punt return reached the NIU 9-yard line. Patterson scored from four yards out and it was 20-10. Costner Ching’s fumble recovery one series later led to a well designed three-yard touchdown pass from Patterson to Noah Gindorff.
It can’t be Watson all the time. Nor should it be.
“We need to get the ball in our playmakers’ hands,” Entz said. “We have a number of them. It gets tough sometimes how we ‘personnel’ everything. We have a ton of personnels and I think it’s difficult to defend us.”
At 6-foot-5 and 208 pounds, it’s difficult to defend Watson. Opposing teams have figured out how not to give him an opportunity on a kickoff return. Handling that kind of size and speed is another matter on defense.
That 85-yarder was a prime example.
“I heard the fans standing up and starting to make some noise and I could see Christian had 10 yards of separation,” Ching said. “I know he’s going to come through. I’m glad he’s on our team, I love watching him run and just coming from our freshman year I’ve grown up with him. It’s fun watching what he’s turned into.”