PULLMAN – In his first game back in the lineup after missing two weeks with an injury, Nakia Watson had a career day. In his second game back, the Washington State tailback posted another career effort.
Watson tallied 166 yards on the ground in the Cougars’ 52-14 rout of Stanford on Nov. 5, surpassing his single-game career-high rushing total by 49 yards. A week later, during WSU’s 28-18 win over Arizona State, the junior had his best scoring performance, with three touchdowns.
“This is definitely one of the best parts of my career,” Watson said Tuesday. “Having those games, it feels good knowing that everything is coming together and it feels like my time has come.”
Watson isn’t playing at full power. He was only about “75%” healthy this past weekend against the Sun Devils, according to Cougars coach Jake Dickert. Watson went down with an unspecified lower-body injury while serving as a blocker on a kickoff return Oct. 8 at USC.
“The injury is going well,” he said. “I’m getting rehab for it every day, trying to maintain and keep it right so I can finish out the season strong.”
The lingering effects of the injury didn’t show up much over the past two weeks. Watson lifted WSU’s slumping offense, churning out yardage with strong runs inside while exhibiting a quick burst on a couple of breakaway carries and check-down catches that went for big gains. He rushed for a combined 282 yards and four touchdowns on 36 carries (7.8 yards per try), adding 71 yards on three catches.
“He has given us a spark the past two games,” Dickert said Saturday. “It’s really easy to see. He’s giving us tough, hard, physical yards. … It isn’t just when it’s easy and open. It’s finding ways to make some guys miss, then when nothing is there, to keep the ball moving forward.
“He’s been a warrior. He wanted to get back and prove it. I think he’s had one heckuva season. Nakia has far exceeded expectations in the run game, the pass game, the protection game. And he calms down our offense when he’s out there.”
Before his back-to-back 100-yard rushing games, Watson had produced over 100 yards on the ground in just one career game – a 117-yard output in a Week 1 win over Idaho this year.
During his two-game tear this month, Watson broke off runs of 65, 41, 25, 22 and 20 yards, and had receptions that went for 35 and 29 yards. He was stopped in the backfield on just two carries.
“I’m really proud of that kid,” Dickert said. “Remembering back to Wisconsin and how hard he played there and getting some tough yards, to going through an injury and battling back, and to push through … the confidence he has with the ball and how he’s changed the look of what we want to do has been really impressive. It’s not always easy.”
Dickert spotlighted Watson’s power-running abilities on his first TD versus ASU – a 2-yard Wildcat run on a fourth-and-goal early in the first quarter.
“There’s an unblocked hitter coming right at him, and he ran him right over to finish,” Dickert said. “Those are the tough yards we’re talking about. It’s not always easy. It’s not always flashy. It’s just a choice. So, I think he’s brought that back to our offense, which was much-needed.”
Watson fashioned an identity as a bruising back while playing at Wisconsin, where he totaled 522 yards and five touchdowns across the 2019 and ’20 seasons.
He transferred to WSU ahead of the 2021 season and waited his turn, riding the bench behind seniors Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh, both of whom sat out in WSU’s season finale. Watson totaled 114 yards on 36 rushes last year – 62 yards on 17 carries in his first career start, a loss to Central Michigan at the Sun Bowl. Watson added versatility to his game this offseason, improving his speed as he prepared to adopt the starting role in WSU’s new Air Raid offense, a scheme that uses its tailbacks often in the passing game.
Watson experienced mixed results through the first five games of this season, compiling 325 rushing yards, 148 receiving yards and four total TDs. He showed flashes of his potential in a few games. Most notably, Watson posted 64 yards and two touchdowns from scrimmage against his former team, helping WSU beat Wisconsin 17-14 in Week 2. He registered 104 yards and a score on 20 touches in a 44-41 loss to Oregon on Sept. 24 but had a down game against Cal and suffered his injury the following week.
Now, he’s spearheading a late push for WSU’s ground game, which has jumped a couple of spots in the Pac-12’s statistical rankings over the past two weeks. WSU sat last in the conference in most rushing categories throughout the season. With two games remaining, the Cougars rank 10th in the conference in rushing yards per game (111.1) and seventh in yards per attempt (4.2).
“I think we have the grit and I think we have the want-to,” Watson said of WSU’s rushing offense. “We want to finish and we want to dominate people, and it’s definitely been showing in the second half of the season – not only me, but our offensive line, too.”
Watson is fourth in the Pac-12 in yards per carry (6.1) and fifth in yards per game (75.9). Overall, he has recorded 607 rushing yards and six TDs on 100 attempts. The Austin, Texas, native is WSU’s fifth-most productive receiver with 219 yards and two TDs on 17 catches.
The Cougars (6-4, 3-4 Pac-12) hope to take advantage of their opponent’s porous rushing defense when they meet Arizona (4-6, 2-5) at 11 a.m. Saturday in Tucson. The Wildcats are yielding 218.7 yards on the ground per game – 10th in the Pac-12 and 124th nationally. There’s no team in the nation with a lower-graded rushing defense than Arizona, per Pro Football Focus’ metrics.
“It kind of does make me excited,” Watson said regarding Arizona’s struggles in stopping the run. “Not that they’re any different from the other teams. … Whether it’s a good team or whoever it is, we go out with the same mindset. We come in with a chip on our shoulder and play to the best of our ability.”
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