Notre Dame's Watson looks forward to facing Bowden

Updated: October 30, 2003, 2:02 AM ET

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Courtney Watson grew up in Sarasota, Fla., doing the Tomahawk Chop, cheering for Florida State and admiring Bobby Bowden. He didn't hesitate, though, to accept a scholarship from Notre Dame.

That's because the Seminoles never offered him one.

"I guess I had no choice," Watson said.

Bowden was unaware Wednesday that Watson was even from Florida.

"Is he No. 33?" Bowden said. "Oh my goodness. He's the best player on the field. I don't know how we blew that one. Ask him if we can do it again."

The oversight has worked out well for Watson and Notre Dame.

The former high school running back who once dreamed of winning a Heisman Trophy is a semifinalist for the Butkus Award given to the nation's best linebacker. Watson, who leads the Irish with 69 tackles, was one of three finalists last year.

Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham thinks so much of Watson that last year he suggested to officials at Orlando's Downtown Athletic Club, which gives out the Butkus Award, that they consider changing the name to the Watson Award because he personifies what a college football player should be both on and off the field.

Willingham said what makes Watson special is he is so smart he makes those around him better.

Watson had to switch this season from weakside to middle linebacker for the Irish (2-5) because Mike Goolsby is still recovering from a broken collarbone. Defensive coordinator Kent Baer said Watson has had no trouble adjusting.

"He's got great instincts, just tremendous instincts," Baer said.

As smart and as instinctive a player as Watson is, though, he's at a loss to explain why the defense isn't as good as last season.

The defense lost three players to graduation and Goolsby to injury. Everyone else is back, but the results are vastly different.

Last year, the Irish didn't allow more than 24 points in a game until the regular-season finale against Southern California. This season, it has given up 24 or more points four times in seven games, including 38 against Michigan and 45 against USC.

The Irish returned five interceptions for touchdowns last season. This year's team has three interceptions total.

Watson doesn't know what happened.

"We're not able to do that, and that's a big part of what we lived off of last year is getting great field position for our offense," he said.

"It's not just that we did it last year, we did it with the same guys. I think that definitely adds, not so much to frustration, but to the sense of urgency. Whatever we need to do to get back to that, we need to do that."

Watson admits ending No. 5 Florida State's chances for a national championship is a motivating factor. But an even bigger motivation is wanting to play well in front of Bowden, a coach he grew up admiring.

"Just growing up and loving it so much and now getting the opportunity to spoil it, especially in the situation our team is in and with them having a good season, it makes it even more special," he said.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index