Watson bursts onto scene

Tom Loftus sports editor

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As if losing 56-14 last Saturday to Missouri Valley Football Conference rival Youngstown State wasn’t enough, two key members of the Western Illinois football team came away with more than their pride injured.

Backup quarterback Will Lunt, who has been effective in limited action in relief of starter Josh Hudson, fractured his fibula. Ethan Bachinski, who has contributed to the Leathernecks this season both on special teams and as a backup linebacker, cracked a rib.

Both players were lost for the remainder of the 2011 season.

Lunt completed 19 of 38 passes this season for 178 yards and 1 interception. Bachinski contributed 10 solo tackles, 5 assisted tackles and 2-1/2 tackles for loss.

Western, which was ranked No. 24 in the country in the 2011 FCS Now preseason poll, fell to a frustrating 2-6 overall with Saturday’s loss, and 1-4 in the MVFC. Of the team’s remaining three games, one is vs. the No. 1 team in the country, the North Dakota State Bison (8-0, 5-0), on Nov. 19; another is against the nation’s 17th-ranked squad, the streaking Illinois State Redbirds (6-3, 4-2), who won four straight, outscoring those four MVFC foes, 121-60.

The Leathernecks travel to Normal, Ill. to take on the Redbirds at Hancock Stadium on Saturday at 1 p.m.

Some good news did emerge from last Saturday’s loss, however.

True freshman Nikko Watson – a 6-foot, 240-pound running back who, until last week, was a member of Western’s scout team – made the most of his first chance to take the field in the pads and helmet of an NCAA college football player.

Playing due to injuries to starting backs Caulton Ray and Bryce Flowers that prevented both players from seeing action for Western, Watson carried the ball 30 times for 149 yards and 1 touchdown, and officially played his way off of the Leathernecks scout team.

“The coaches aren’t ready to call (Watson) a star yet,” said Western head coach Mark Hendrickson with a smile, “but a hard-working running back? Yes.”

Although Ray is expected back in the starting lineup for Western on Saturday, redshirt freshman Larry Patterson is capable of breaking off a run for big yardage, and Flowers may also be ready to go, Hendrickson said that the availability of those players will not keep Watson riding the pines for 60 minutes.

“Nikko will play. Nikko will have carries against ISU,” Hendrickson said.

The Leathernecks head coach said that while Watson’s performance against the Penguins may have surprised some fans, Western’s coaching staff knew that the true freshman had it in him.

“In the world of sports, you can’t predict anything,” Hendrickson said. “But what we saw from Nikko is what we expected to see, because of how he practices.

“We knew he could do that. He responded very well to the challenge, and played as well as he could in Game 1 of his career.”

Western will face another in a seemingly endless stream of talented running backs on Saturday. Redbird senior back Ashton Leggett currently ranks 20th in the nation with a per-game rushing average of 100.78 yards. Leggett has 907 net rushing yards on 190 carries.

The Leathernecks will be hoping for a strong bounce-back performance from junior quarterback Josh Hudson, who was briefly benched last Saturday in favor of Lunt, and later for third-stringer Cody Reardon. Hudson was 10 of 21 for 93 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions against the Penguins.

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