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North Dakota State-James Madison title tilt has Tampa Bay ties

The Bison, who can win their eighth Football Championship Subdivision (Division I-AA) crown in nine seasons, have a history of showcasing area talent.
North Dakota State wide receiver Christian Watson (1) scores in the first half of an FCS playoff game against Montana State on Dec. 21 in Fargo, N.D. [BRUCE CRUMMYY  |  Associated Press]
North Dakota State wide receiver Christian Watson (1) scores in the first half of an FCS playoff game against Montana State on Dec. 21 in Fargo, N.D. [BRUCE CRUMMYY | Associated Press]
Published Jan. 10

Christian Watson had an impressive senior season at Plant High in 2016. He caught eight touchdowns and helped the Panthers reach the Class 7A state championship game.

The recruiting pundits were not impressed, however. Watson was listed as the 501st best receiver in the nation and the 536th best player in the state, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings for the 2017 class.

Watson was an afterthought among big-time college programs, too. His only scholarship offer came from Football Championship Subdivision (Division I-AA) powerhouse North Dakota State. So Watson became a Bison.

It turned out to be the perfect fit.

In two seasons, the redshirt sophomore has thrived as a multidimensional force. This year has been Watson’s best with 732 receiving yards and six touchdowns. He also added 174 rushing yards and a score. In the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals, Watson showed his off his explosiveness. He touched the ball just five times but gained 88 yards receiving, 86 rushing and scored twice in a 42-14 rout of Montana State.

“It was a crazy experience to be able to go out there and execute like that,” Watson said in the postgame news conference.

That performance helped the Bison (15-0) reach Saturday’s noon title game (televised on ABC) against James Madison (14-1). North Dakota State has won 36 straight games, the longest streak in I-AA history. Another win would not only give the Bison their eighth title in nine seasons, but make them the first college football team to finish 16-0 since Yale in 1894.

Playing for titles, whether at the state or national college level, has become commonplace for Watson. He typically plays a big part in those championship game appearances thanks to his speed.

Watson has been clocked at 23 mph. Thirty North Dakota State players, including Watson, wear a GPS tracker in practices and games, according to inforum.com. The device is worn on the upper body much like harness.

Two weeks ago, Watson turned on the afterburners in the semifinals, scoring on a 70-yard run and a 75-yard reception.

“Christian Watson is an unbelievable talent,” Bison coach Matt Entz said after the game. “He’s only a sophomore. He needs to continue to get better. He knows that. But to see where he’s at now in December of 2019 compared to December of 2018, it’s a 180-degree turn and he’s become a really good Bison.”

Local stars

Watson is not the only former area standout on rosters for Saturday’s title game.

North Dakota State RB Jalen Bussey: In the only action Bussey (Tampa Catholic) saw this season, the freshman shined, rushing for 123 yards and scoring twice on six carries against Western Illinois.

North Dakota State wide receiver Zach Mathis (17) drives for the end zone in an early-season game against North Dakota. [RUSSELL HONS | ZUMAPRESS.com]

North Dakota State WR Zach Mathis: In his first season, the freshman from Berkeley Prep has caught five passes for 79 yards, including a 41-yarder against North Dakota.

Put us in, Coach: North Dakota State freshman defensive back Cam Smith (Admiral Farragut) and James Madison freshman quarterback Jake O’Donnell (Sickles) still await playing time.

Bay Area Bison

These Tampa Bay alums already have won national titles with North Dakota State.

Bruce Anderson: The former Newsome standout was a two-time I-AA All-American, finished fifth at the school in career total yards with 4,704 and helped the Bison to three national titles.

Atif Austin was part of four national titles when he was an assistant at North Dakota State. [North Dakota State University athletics]

Atif Austin: The former Tarpon Springs coach was on the North Dakota staff for four seasons (2014-18), winning four national titles. He won a Super Bowl as an assistant with the New England Patriots last season and is currently the running backs/special teams coordinator at Northern Illinois.

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