Happy Return Brightens Sad Day For Penn State Defensive Line

Austin Johnson made the play of the game for the Nittany Lions vs. SDSU. He dedicated his performance to a fellow D-tackle whose father passed away.

Tragedy and comedy shared space on Penn State’s defensive line Saturday afternoon.

Elation and desolation, side by side.

The highest of highs, and the lowest of lows.

There was tackle Anthony Zettel, whose father, Terry, died Friday in Michigan at age 46, after a long battle with cancer.

And there was Anthony’s running mate at tackle, Austin Johnson, who had his teammate’s back. And then some, as it turned out.

“Ever since I heard about that,” Johnson said, referring to Terry’s death, “I was playing for Z and his dad.”

Before the 37-21 victory over San Diego State, Johnson and the younger Zettel embraced on the field, as they always do. They are close, and these last two years they have formed a special combination in the middle of PSU’s defense.

But this moment represented something more. This time Johnson talked about Terry, and about dedicating the game to him. It is why Johnson scrawled “T-Bone,” as the elder Zettel was known, on the tape on his right wrist. (He has been writing “No. 5” on the tape on his other wrist, in honor of middle linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White, who was lost for the season to a knee injury suffered in the opener against Temple.)

“I’m playing for those guys, for the rest of the season,” Johnson said.

And so he did, capping his day (and virtually clinching the game) with a 71-yard fumble return for a touchdown a little over a minute into the fourth quarter.

“That,” said Malik Golden, a first-time starter at safety for the injured Jordan Lucas, “was the funniest thing I’ve seen in a while.”

The situation was this: The Aztecs were within six, at 27-21, and had driven to the Penn State 25. Facing third-and-11, defensive end Carl Nassib swept in for his second sack of the day, and in the process dislodged the ball from quarterback Maxwell Smith.

Johnson scooped it up and saw that there was only one man between him and the end zone. He was able to maneuver around him.

“And,” Johnson said, “I started cruising from there.”

“Cruising” being a relative term, when you go 6-foot-4 and 323 pounds. “Lumbering” might have been a better description for what Johnson was doing, as he headed toward his first touchdown on any level of competition.

“When I was running I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s about to go down,’ ” he said.

His teammates were no less heartened.

“I was trying to catch up to him,” end Garrett Sickels said. “I was just more laughing, the size of him running down the field.”

Linebacker Troy Reeder was chasing Johnson, too. Asked how he would describe the tackle’s running style, Reeder thought about it a moment.

“Overweight fullback,” he finally said.

Golden was asked how long it seemed to take Johnson to make it to the end zone.

“About two minutes,” he said, smiling. “Don’t tell him I said that, though.”

Johnson said defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has been talking about the need for the defense to score a touchdown.

“I was happy to provide that,” he said.

And happy, too, to provide Zettel with some solace. Coach James Franklin said things have been particularly difficult for Anthony the last three weeks — that he has frequently returned home, but when left with the choice of whether to play or not, has always elected to suit up.

On Saturday he played his best game of the season, making a team-high seven tackles, 2.5 of them for losses, while sharing a sack, recovering a fumble and batting down a pass. He was understandably absent from the interview room after the game, but to hear his teammates tell it, he was as buoyant as ever during the proceedings.

“Still the same Zettel,” said Sickels, who noted that the older man was his host during his official recruiting visit a few years back, and that he took him under his wing when he arrived on campus.

“He’s really that type of guy you look up to when you first come in,” Sickels said. “What he’s going through right now, I can’t even imagine it. I don’t want to imagine it. But he’s a hard worker. He’s here with us. We’re going to have his back.”

And according to Franklin, practice will be revised Sunday so that the Lions can be there for Zettel at his dad’s memorial service in Michigan.

“We talk about being a family,” Franklin said, “and we’re going to back that up all the time.”

As Johnson did Saturday, in the best way possible.

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