MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Nakia Watson’s emergence as a featured running back for a Power Five team didn’t come until he left Wisconsin and headed west.
Now he’s back at Camp Randall Stadium to face his former teammates as Washington State (1-0) visits the 19th-ranked Badgers (1-0) on Saturday.
“It means a lot to me,” Watson told reporters this week. “It’s the old stomping grounds.”
Watson rushed for 522 yards and five touchdowns for Wisconsin from 2019-20 and says he still has about eight to 10 former teammates he speaks with regularly. Watson rushed for a career-high 117 yards in Washington State’s season-opening 24-17 victory over Idaho.
His running ability provides a nice complement for quarterback Cam Ward, who threw three touchdown passes in his Washington State debut after throwing for 4,648 yards and 47 touchdowns last season at Incarnate Word.
They’ll have their hands full trying to move the ball against Wisconsin’s defense. Wisconsin is a 16 ½-point favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
The Badgers, coming off a 38-0 shutout of Illinois State, expect a major challenge from their former teammate. Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard says Watson looks a little lighter and a little more explosive than he was at Wisconsin.
“We’ve got to wrap him up,” defensive tackle Keeanu Benton said. “There ain’t going to be no kind of shoulder-checking him or arm tackles. He’s going to run straight through that. Just wrap him up and make sure we secure the tackle.”
Watson says he has his told his teammates what to expect at Camp Randall Stadium.
“They are strong, they are fast and they are powerful,” Watson said. “We’re going to have to bite down on our mouthpiece and come with what we come with. That’s what I let our team know.”
ALLEN ROLLING ON
Watson’s return is the more interesting story, but he’s not the most heralded running back in this game. That honor belongs to Wisconsin’s Braelon Allen, whose 96-yard touchdown against Illinois State was the longest run from scrimmage in school history. Allen ran for 1,268 yards and 12 touchdowns last season.
Washington State coach Jake Dickert was born in Kohler, Wisconsin, about 115 miles northeast of Madison. He grew up rooting for Wisconsin and played at Wisconsin-Stevens Point from 2002-06.
“When you grow up there, you know, there’s a few things that are in your blood,” Dickert said. “Beer, cheese, Packers, Badgers, Bucks and Brewers. I’m a product of Wisconsin.”
Dickert says he’s going to have about 200 friends and family members ta the game, including his 86-year-old grandmother.
“She already asked me if I want her homemade strawberry jelly,” Dickert said. “Absolutely!”
FEASTING ON TURNOVERS
Washington State led the Pac-12 and ranked fifth among all Bowl Subdivision teams with 29 takeaways last season. The Cougars picked off two passes against Idaho and have forced multiple turnovers in 11 of their last 14 games.
Washington State’s propensity for producing turnovers is notable because Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz threw more interceptions (11) than touchdown passes (10) last season.
There are early signs that Mertz is improving in that regard. He went 14 of 16 and avoided any turnovers against Idaho. Mertz says the adversity he’s encountered the last couple of years should help him in the long run, both on and off the field.
“That’s the cool thing,” Mertz said. “You get to learn. When you’re 40 ,45 and you’ve got a family and adversity hits, what are you going to do? That’s what you’re training right now. I just try to keep that in the back of my mind. These are not only football lessons but life lessons you’ve got to hold on to.”
Wisconsin will be playing without safety Hunter Wohler, who injured his left leg against Illinois State while making his first career start. The Badgers already lost safety Travian Blaylock to a season-ending knee injury in spring practice.
There's a possibility Wisconsin cornerbacks Justin Clark and Alexander Smith could return from injuries that kept them from playing against Illinois State. Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said Thursday he was “hopeful but not certain” and added that Clark has been able to do more in practice than Smith this week.
Associated Press writer Nicholas Geranios has contributed to this report.
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