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McFeely blog: Watson's status still up in air for Bison as title game approaches

Receiver missed three FCS playoff games with hamstring injury, NDSU coach says still 'in holding pattern'

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North Dakota State's Christian Watson is sidelined for the NCAA FCS quarterfinal football playoff game against East Tennessee on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, in Fargo.
Michael Vosburg/Forum Communications Co.

FARGO — Whether North Dakota State standout receiver Christian Watson will play in the national championship game will be a question answered publicly at about 10:59 a.m. Central time on Jan. 8, it appears. That would be shortly before kickoff between the Bison and Montana State in the Football Championship Subdivision title game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.

The availability of Watson, the senior receiver who is projected by some to be an NFL Draft choice in 2022, remains up in the air because of a hamstring injury suffered in November. He has not played since the regular-season finale against South Dakota on Nov. 20. Bison head coach Matt Entz didn't give a definitive answer when asked about Watson during a media Zoom call Thursday.

"Right now we're kind of in a holding pattern, which is unfortunate and frustrating at different times," Entz said. "We're taking it day by day, and I know that's the conversation I've had, but there's really not any adjustment to this right now."

Watson suffered what is believed to be a Grade 2 hamstring injury in practice during Thanksgiving week. Grade 1 is the mildest hamstring injury and players can usually return to action quickly while Grade 3 is a complete tear of of the muscle that would take months to heal. Watson warmed up and was jogging before NDSU's semifinal playoff victory over James Madison at the Fargodome on Dec. 17, indicating his injury isn't the most severe grade.

Watson is NDSU's leading receiver with 39 catches for 740 yards and seven touchdowns, while also providing a rushing and kick return threat. He leads the Bison with 18 plays of 20 yards or more, including four touchdown receptions of 65 yards or more.

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NDSU's deep passing game has struggled with Watson sidelined as players like Phoenix Sproles, RaJa Nelson, Braylon Henderson and Zach Mathis haven't made big plays in his absence. The only Bison wide receiver with a catch over 20 yards since Watson was sidelined is DJ Hart, who had a 26-yard reception against James Madison. The Bison have turned to tight end Josh Babicz and fullback Hunter Luepke as their deeper threats.

At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds with sprinter speed, Watson presents a unique challenge for opposing defenses. He is big enough to catch the ball over shorter defensive backs, as he did with two critical catches in a 27-20 victory over Missouri State in the regular season, but is also fast enough to run past cornerbacks and safeties. Watson caught TD bombs of 85, 71 and 67 yards during the regular season.

“He’s a tremendous playmaker, not only catching the ball, but running with the football as well. I think he draws a lot of attention on offense and also in the kick return game as well," Montana State head coach Brent Vigen said. "I think our expectation is to see Christian and to pay him attention. Whatever that is, it’s certainly not allowing him to get behind us, doing everything we can from that perspective."

Watson has accepted an invitation to the East-West Shrine Game in Las Vegas on Feb. 3. Some projections have him as a possible third- or fourth-round pick in April's NFL Draft. He will begin training immediately for the Shrine Game and NFL Combine following the FCS title game.

"We're trying to make sure that once he's able to play, he's able to play," Entz said. "We don't want to put the cart before the horse as far as his health goes."

Entz was more positive that offensive linemen Jalen Sundell and Nash Jensen could return to the lineup. Sundell, the starting center, and Jensen, a starting guard, were injured in NDSU's quarterfinal playoff victory over East Tennessee State. Sundell did not play in the semifinals and Jensen was on the field for only three plays before sitting out the rest of the game.

Entz said both were taking reps in practice this week.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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