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McFeely: Bison star Watson missing with injury, but for how long?

NDSU rolls over Southern Illinois without NFL-bound receiver, but it could hurt more in quest for championship

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North Dakota State's TaMerik Williams carries against Southern Illinois during their NCAA FCS second-round football playoff game Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Forum Communications Co.

FARGO — Southern Illinois coach Nick Hill saw fit to keep calling timeouts in the final moments of his team's 38-7 FCS playoff loss to North Dakota State on Saturday. Perhaps he wanted to savor for a few more minutes his team's spring silly-season victory over the Bison, which must've felt like it happened nine years ago instead of nine months ago.

NDSU dominated the Salukis in every phase except unsportsmanlike conduct penalties by rolling up 477 yards of offense, possessing the football for nearly 38 of 60 minutes and holding Hill's offense to 2 of 13 on third down. It was as badly as a team was whipsawed this season by the Bison.

Imagine how bad it would've been had Christian Watson played.

Or if Noah Gindorff had played the whole game.

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With all the good news in a second-round victory for the Bison came some bad, and it might be really bad as it relates to NDSU's hopes of winning another national championship.

Watson, the senior star receiver who tortures defenses with his speed, missed the game with a hamstring injury, according to Bison head coach Matt Entz.

When Watson will return to the lineup, or if he will, is up in the air.

When asked if he expects Watson back this season, Entz said, "Hope so. We're going to let the medical personnel take care of that the best they can."

Not exactly hopeful words.

Not having Watson and his ability to stretch the field vertically and horizontally with his 6-foot-5, 210-pound frame and speed didn't matter against the Salukis. The Bison offensive line bullied and browbeat the unfortunate SIU defensive line into submission. And with running backs TaMerik Williams and Kobe Johnson rumbling into the secondary with a full head of steam, NDSU rushed for 389 yards.

The biggest threat of injury to NDSU quarterback Cam Miller was a bad case of carpal tunnel syndrome from handing off so often. The Bison ran 62 times. Miller threw only 14 passes.

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If Watson can't play next week, it won't matter. NDSU will play East Tennessee State in the quarterfinals, a game in which the Bison should be able to bully and browbeat their way to victory There are going to be some wide eyes in the Buccaneers secondary when Williams gets rolling.

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North Dakota State quarterback Cam Miller signals silence to Southern Illinois defense after scoring a first quarter touchdown during the FCS playoffs at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021. David Samson / The Forum
Forum Communications Co.

If the Bison beat East Tennessee State, a game in which they will be heavily favored, missing Watson might then become more problematic. If NDSU hopes to return to Frisco, Texas, in January for a shot at a ninth national championship, not having Watson could be a deep pothole.

The potential semifinal matchup would be James Madison or Montana, who both possess significantly more physical and talented defenses than Southern Illinois or East Tennessee State. Missing Watson against the Dukes or Grizzlies would limit what the Bison could do, although Miller put on a brave face Saturday.

"I feel like everybody knows Christian is probably the best player in FCS and not having him it's just ... we have to have a next man up mentality," Miller said. "We have such a deep wide receiver room. Obviously having him out hurts, but we have guys that can make plays."

Against the Salukis, though, the receivers didn't make plays. In fairness, they weren't asked to. But Braylon Henderson and Phoenix Sproles combined for only three catches that totaled 18 yards. Zach Mathis and RaJa Nelson were targeted a total of two times and didn't have a catch.

The Bison could simply manhandle Southern Illinois. The question is whether they'll be able to do the same to James Madison or Montana, when it likely comes to that.

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"I don't care if I don't throw a pass the entire game as long as we win the game," Miller said. "For me, it's really fun to watch our backs get 10, 15 yards per carry. It was awesome to see."

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North Dakota State's Noah Gindorff is helped to the locker room by teammates Bartholomew Ogbu and Lane Tucker after sustaining a leg injury against Southern Illinois during the FCS playoffs at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021. David Samson / The Forum
Forum Communications Co.

Losing Gindorff is another blow. The big tight end is a key blocker and an important passing target for the Bison offense. He's had a quieter senior season than expected, but with Watson out against Southern Illinois it was Gindorff who was being targeted. He had three catches for 35 yards in the first half before suffering what appeared to be a serious lower leg injury. His catches included a 17-yarder when he lined up wide and caught a Miller pass along the sideline.

Gindorff's size and athleticism is a unique tool for the Bison offense.

NDSU already showed some creativity by putting backup quarterback Quincy Patterson, all 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds of him, on the field at the same time as Miller. At times, Miller would line up on the edge as a receiver and Patterson would take the snap in the shotgun. The behemoth quarterback ran for 82 yards, including a 32-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.

The Bison are adding more wrinkles than an AARP convention.

The issue might be that all the creativity is going to have to come in the running game.

Entz, though he didn't need to, apologized for how often NDSU ran the ball Saturday.

"I get it. It's not for the fan who loves big plays and explosive plays , it's not very exciting," he said. "For the people who truly appreciate football, it was a pretty good game."

It was actually a thing of beauty. Who doesn't love a team running the football the way NDSU did against Southern Illinois?

And if Watson doesn't return, it might be NDSU's best shot at Frisco and another national championship.

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North Dakota State's Kobe Johnson crash lands between Southern Illinois' Kholbe Coleman and Zach Burrola during the FCS playoffs at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021. David Samson / The Forum
Forum Communications Co.

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