It was two years ago. A chilly night in Wiliams-Brice Stadium, much like the one that awaits Clemson Saturday night.
Clemson already trailed South Carolina 3-0, and on the Tigers' first offensive play from their own 35, Tajh Boyd dropped back and threw deep down the left seam for Watkins, then a freshman receiver.
Watkins had two steps on his South Carolina defender, home free for a sure 65-yard touchdown – until he dropped the ball.
That play symbolizes Watkins' struggles against the Gamecocks. The Clemson junior has emerged as one of college football's top receivers, but he has struggled mightily against South Carolina. Entering Saturday's 7 p.m. visit to Columbia, he has a total of eight catches for 76 yards in two games.
"They did a lot of different things," Watkins said of South Carolina's coverage. "They tried to take away one of us. Each year, me and Nuk didn't play good games. We played average."
Watkins said South Carolina's corners are "great cornerbacks, but any great cornerback can be beaten during a game." Being aggressive with blocking and downfield routes, he said, is crucial.
"It's big to come in the game and make a lot of plays, put your name on the offense to where the coaches will keep giving you the ball," he said. "I've got to go out there with great mentality, physical aspect, prepare the right way and go have fun. We can't look at this game and take it too big. It's the same game we played last year and the year before."
Watkins writes off the 2011 drop by noting his success since then.
"I was a young guy, I knew that game was big," he said. "But at the same time, I've made so many plays at this university where I didn't drop passes. I've put those things behind me and made up for it on the next play."
Considering his status as a likely first-round pick in next April's NFL draft, Watkins likely has only one more chance to make up for his South Carolina shortcomings. For Clemson to break its four-year Gamecock hex, Watkins must be involved early and often.
" It's got to be a statement game for me to make some plays and be that dominant player," he said. "And I'm going to prepare the right way this week. Hopefully I can go out and make a lot of plays."
He has certainly done that this fall in a clear bounceback following a sophomore season colored by suspension and injury.
Watkins has 1.144 yards and 10 touchdowns with 78 receptions. He leads the ACC in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns and is second in receptions. He is Clemson's all-time career receiving yards leader and is only 15 receptions behind Aaron Kelly for the program's all-time receptions lead.
Kelly, who had 232 from 2005-08, is second all-time in the ACC. He piled up his receptions in four years; Watkins is fourth all-time in ACC history with 217 in just under three years.
This week, he was named as one of three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award, given to college football's top receiver, alongside Oregon State's Brandin Cooks and Texas A&M's Mike Evans.
That doesn't matter this week, however. Only one thing does: performing well and beating South Carolina.
"We've been outplayed the past three years," Watkins said. "They've played harder than us, they outphysicaled us. We've got to come into this game and do the things we haven't done for the last three years. That's prepare and execute the plays and be physical, prepared for what they've gotten on offense and defense."
The Fort Myers, Fla., native didn't grow up in this rivalry, but after three seasons, he knows just how big it is – and how important it is for him to play well.
"I've got to go out there and perform every game. This is one of the biggest games of the year," he said. "This is who rules South Carolina. It's not only big for us but for the Clemson fans and coaches. For the last four years they've beaten us, and we've got a statement to go out there and have fun and play, leave out with a win."
South Carolina has contained the Tigers' top receivers in the past two years. In 2011, DeAndre Hopkins had three catches for 24 yards. And last year, Hopkins had a 43-yard touchdown catch, but it was his only grab of the game.
Watkins looks for big game
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