Penn State Football

How did Penn State blow out Illinois? Look no further than this turning point

Penn State’s Miles Sanders (24) and Juwan Johnson (84) celebrate a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Illinois on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Holly Hart)
Penn State’s Miles Sanders (24) and Juwan Johnson (84) celebrate a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Illinois on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Holly Hart) AP

Immediately, minutes following every Penn State game, we’ll take a closer look at the turning point to each game. You can find our more in-depth stories after speaking with coaches and players on centredaily.com

Here’s a hint: This play involves an athlete who knows a thing or two about catching turning-point balls over the middle.

If you guessed Juwan Johnson and his fourth-quarter catch? You’re absolutely right.

There were plenty of big plays to choose from Friday night. But, in Penn State’s 63-24 win over Illinois, it was Johnson’s nice body adjustment and sure hands early in the final quarter that really propelled the Nittany Lions to the big win.

Let’s set it up: On third-and-12, on the Illinois 16-yard line, Penn State nursed a narrow 28-24 lead. A field goal would’ve kept it as a one-score game and, with the wind, those three points were no guarantee.

Luckily for Nittany Nation, Trace McSorley and Johnson refused to settle.

Moments after the snap on the first play in the fourth quarter, McSorley stepped up into a collapsing pocket and fired it to the end zone on the run. It wasn’t a perfect pass, but Johnson — a 6-foot-4, 225-pound redshirt junior — leaped up, adjusted his body and plucked it out of the air.

McSorley placed it to where Illinois linebacker Jake Hansen, who’s 6-foot-1, couldn’t reach it. Johnson took advantage and came down with the ball. Once he popped back up, after the official had signaled a touchdown, he turned to the crowd with a finger on his lips.

The reception had some shades of Iowa in 2017, when Johnson caught the game-winning touchdown on fourth-and-goal. After some struggles and drops earlier this season, it was a big confidence boost for Johnson, who finished the Illinois game with four catches for 51 yards.

Before that play, Miles Sanders’ 48-yard rushing TD was big in that it gave Penn State the lead again. After Johnson’s play, linebacker Jan Johnson grabbed the interception and Penn State capitalized with another passing touchdown. All those plays were important to the Nittany Lions’ win.

But Johnson’s third-down TD catch? That made this a two-score game. It was the turning point.

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