The last time Christian Hackenberg saw Joey Bosa, the Ohio State defensive end was slamming Hackenberg to the Ohio Stadium turf.
That was almost a year ago.
“I think he’s gotten a lot better this year from last year,” Hackenberg said. “He’s a really big challenge for us.”
Bosa, third in the Big Ten with 5 1/2 sacks, is taking his cues from a new coach this season, one that’s quite familiar to Penn State fans and players alike. Larry Johnson will be leading the Buckeyes’ defensive line when No. 13 Ohio State (5-1, 2-0 Big Ten) plays Penn State (4-2, 1-2) at Beaver Stadium on Saturday.
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“It’s going to be different,” Penn State defensive tackle Austin Johnson said. “But business is business and we have to take care of business and that’s what it all comes down to.”
For Penn State’s offense, that means cutting through a defensive line that is loaded with explosive athletes who have played well with Johnson tutoring them this season. The Buckeyes are allowing less than 140 rushing yards per game and seven of their eight sacks in the last three games have come from defensive linemen.
Bosa and senior defensive tackle Michael Bennett in particular have been the Buckeyes’ two most reliable and consistent defenders. At 6-5 and 278 pounds, Bosa has at least one sack in each of the last three games and has been added to the watchlist for the Chuck Bednarik award, given to the best defender in the nation.
Penn State players who were coached by Johnson aren’t surprised Bosa and the rest of the Buckeyes’ defensive linemen are playing up to their potential. After all, it was a handful of current Penn State defensive linemen and former lettermen who recommended Johnson and called for him to be named Penn State’s next head coach when Bill O’Brien left to coach the NFL’s Houston Texans.
But it didn’t work out that way. Johnson spent 10 days as Penn State’s interim coach before James Franklin was hired. In those 10 days, Johnson simply spent his time working the phones, assuring recruits and current players that Penn State would stay on track despite losing the majority of its coaching staff.
“It was a good week,” Johnson said. “You’ve got a chance to really try and hold together a class and try and sell a product that already sells itself and that’s Penn State. I was very fortunate and blessed with the opportunity to try and hold it together again for a second time and it was great. It really was.”
But Johnson didn’t get the chance to take over the team permanently. He interviewed for the job but then-athletic director Dave Joyner and the rest of the search committee decided to go in another direction. When Franklin was hired, Johnson decided his time at Penn State had run its course. He knew Franklin planned to bring in Sean Spencer to fill Johnson’s spot and said he had to make a “tough decision” to leave.
Johnson said he has no bitterness toward Penn State or the athletic department and felt good about his candidacy for the vacant position.
“I think there’s a process you go through,” Johnson said. “I made the decision to apply for the job and I think like anyone else, you’re a candidate until you get the job and I was fortunate to be a candidate for the head coaching job.
“I felt pretty good about my time there. It wasn’t about the title I was looking for, I’m at peace with myself and the decision I made.”
Originally, Johnson figured he’d take time off. But that didn’t last long. In fact, it was less than two weeks later when Urban Meyer, looking to replace Mike Vrabel as the Buckeyes’ defensive line coach, offered him a spot on his staff.
“I kind of jumped at it,” Johnson said. “It was a great opportunity.”
So he packed up and moved west. The last member of Johnson’s immediate family living in the area, his son Tony, also moved to be closer to his father recently.
Other than talking with his pastor from his old church every so often, Johnson’s connections to Happy Valley are now mostly in the past. He said he wouldn’t stop by his old house or even see much of anything when he comes back. He’ll be in his hotel game planning, he said.
But Johnson said it would be tough to predict his own emotions when he steps back on the grass at Beaver Stadium — on the visiting sideline clad in red.
“You don’t know until you get there to be honest with you,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of family coming in and a lot of my friends are coming in and it’s exciting to be able to go back to somewhere you spent 18 years at but I don’t think I’m going to have that much emotion that I’m going to show it during the game. I think our players will play hard and that’s all you can hope for going into the game.”
And he knows his old players will do the same. After all, Penn State’s defensive line has also been outstanding this season. The Nittany Lions are ranked in the Top 10 in most every national statistical category and have the best run defense in the country.
“Those are great young men,” Johnson said. “I’m not surprised those guys are doing really well. They’re great high-character players that really work hard and understand how to be great and I think that’s just as important. That’s what you’re seeing.”