Juwan Johnson’s season did not start the way he wanted. No receiver — especially the top returning option in a high-octane passing attack — expects to have almost as many drops as catches through three games.
But standing 10 yards away from Illinois’ north end zone, where his 2018 campaign got back on track, Johnson projected positivity after Friday night’s 63-24 win. He finally broke out of a rut with four catches for 51 yards and a touchdown.
“It’s not about the result. It’s about the process,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of games ahead and guys are relying on me, so I can’t have my head down or waver at any time. ... It’s about being a leader and sticking with those guys and uplifting them.”
Against the Illini, Johnson gave himself a much-needed boost. The redshirt junior with NFL potential entered this season as Trace McSorley’s No. 1 receiving option. In April, he said he wanted to be the man. And through three games, Johnson fell short of that standard.
Johnson had eight catches on 18 targets prior to Friday night’s performance. He had drops against Appalachian State and Pitt and looked disinterested in Week 3, sluggishly going through routes. But Johnson snapped out of it in Champaign. His 16-yard touchdown catch — the second of his career — put Penn State ahead 35-24 at the start of the fourth quarter, a pivotal play in a previously close affair.
James Franklin hopes this is just the start of a productive run for the talent-rich receiver.
“When he plays like that, it doesn’t surprise us one bit,” the coach said. “He’s going to keep getting better as we continue getting him more opportunities.”
- McSorley was oh-so-close to recording his first-ever 100-yard rushing performance. The fifth-year senior tallied 92 yards on 15 carries (6.1 yards per attempt). Through the nonconference slate, he was crisp with his decision-making, choosing the right read at a high clip. That continued against Lovie Smith’s defense, as six of McSorley’s 15 rushes went for first downs. The captain gave credit to Miles Sanders and the offensive line, saying their play “opened up holes on the outside.” If McSorley isn’t going to pat himself on the back, someone should.
- Moments after Juwan Johnson put Penn State up 35-24, linebacker Jan Johnson helped solidify a win. Amani Oruwariye broke on an MJ Rivers pass and tipped the ball in the air for a brief moment. The Mohnton native dove, tucking his hands underneath the pigskin, keeping it from touching the turf. It was Johnson’s first career pick — and it was a memorable one. “That was just a big play,” the grad student said. “It helped swing the momentum.”
- True freshman tight end Pat Freiermuth earned the distinction of co-starter on this week’s depth chart, and he backed up that decision. Freiermuth caught his first career touchdown, a 5-yard play-action pass in the flat to put Penn State up 21-7 in the second quarter. Also, when asked about Sanders and the running game, Franklin mentioned the tight ends’ blocking as a reason for success on the ground. Freiermuth and his 6-foot-5, 258-pound frame was all over the field.
- Mark Allen did not travel with the team, so freshman Ricky Slade handled backup RB duties. And he looked like a five-star stud. Slade tallied 94 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries, breaking loose in the Illini secondary on a 61-yard dash. Friday night was the Sanders show — but Slade showed that as long as he takes care of the football, he could help form the Big Ten’s best one-two punch.
- Starting tight end Jon Holland had a solid stat line, finishing with three catches on as many targets for a position-leading 53 yards. But for the second straight week, he was plagued by ball security issues. Last week, Holland dropped a simple checkdown pass from McSorley, looking upfield before securing the snag. On Friday, on the third play of the game, he fumbled. Holland caught an 18-yard pass and was promptly popped by Illinois safety Stanley Green. The fumble was recovered by the Illini, forcing McSorley to make the tackle. Holland didn’t see the field for two series after that.
- Fall on the ball, Nick Scott. Rivers completed a short pass to Illinois tight end Daniel Barker in the second quarter, and at the 1-yard line, Penn State linebacker Cam Brown forced a fumble. Scott was right there — but the senior safety tried to scoop and scamper down the Illini sideline. It didn’t work out too well. Scott bobbled the ball, Illinois regained possession, and Rivers threw a touchdown pass on the next snap. Admire Scott’s push to make a play, but that’s something taught in Pop Warner.
- The Penn State cornerback room is in rough shape. Nickel corner Donovan Johnson left with an apparent right shoulder injury and reappeared on the sideline in a sling, and John Reid — who missed last season with a serious knee injury — still isn’t himself. The veteran was called for pass interference and block in the back penalties and surrendered an easy slant score. Tariq Castro-Fields, who suffered an injury himself before returning, replaced Reid. We likely won’t find out much about Johnson’s status, considering Franklin’s policy against discussing injuries. As for Reid, the coach thinks “he can take another step if not two.” He’ll need to when Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins (890 passing yards, 11 touchdowns, 72.5 completion percentage through three games) visits next weekend.