The first wish Penn State defensive tackle Austin Johnson has for this Saturday’s game against Indiana, the last of five straight the Nittany Lions will have played at home, is a simple one.
“I just hope it doesn’t rain,” he said.
The day’s challenges figure to go well beyond that, as Johnson no doubt knows. But that is one thing he would like to see, just for starters.
The Lions (4-1) have played in rainy conditions in three of the first four home games, all of them victories over suspect competition. And while the Hoosiers (4-1) bring a potent offense to Beaver Stadium for the homecoming matchup, Johnson — the guy, remember, who rumbled 71 yards for a touchdown (see video above) after scooping up a San Diego State fumble two weeks ago — favors a fast track.
“It’s definitely a lot easier, football, running around and not slipping when you do certain things,” he said during a conference call with reporters earlier this week. “If it rains, it rains, but I would love it if it didn’t. Just to have another home game where it doesn’t rain would really make me very happy.”
IU offers an offensive line that returns four starters — center Jake Reed, right guard Dan Feeney, right tackle Dimitric Camiel and left tackle Jason Spriggs — and one that has served as a launching pad for an attack that is atop the Big Ten in scoring (36 ppg) and total offense (498.2 ypg).
“They have this really good connection with each other,” Johnson said of the Indiana line. “They work really well together. It’s going to be a really good competition up front, between us and them.”
The Hoosiers, in fact, have allowed just three sacks this season, equaling the Big Ten’s lowest total. The Lions have 21 sacks, second-most among FBS schools and most in the conference, as well as 46 tackles for loss, matching Florida for the nation’s fourth-highest total.
“It’s going to be our strength against their strength,” said head coach James Franklin, who added that the Lions’ ability to make plays in the backfield is going to have “a significant impact” on Saturday’s game.
So too is health. IU lost quarterback Nate Sudfeld and tailback Jordan Howard to ankle injuries last week against Ohio State, but still pressed the defending national champs before losing, 34-27. Sudfeld, who to date has completed 59.2 percent of his passes for 1,277 yards and seven touchdowns (with just one interception), told reporters in Indiana earlier this week that he is “day to day.”
Coach Kevin Wilson said on this week’s Big Ten conference call that while both players practiced earlier in the day, they were “limited in what’s going on.” He has declined to offer a timetable on either one’s return.
If Sudfeld cannot go, Zander Diamont will get the start. Howard, whose 709 rushing yards are sixth in the FBS, is backed up by Devine Redding (282 yards, 3.0 ypc).
Diamont, more mobile than Sudfeld but not nearly as gifted a passer, also started in place of the injured regular against PSU last year in Bloomington, going 13-for-27 for just 68 yards through the air, with two interceptions. He also rushed 14 times for 58 yards in the 13-7 loss. Against Ohio State he went 6-for-14 for 76 yards, and rushed seven times for 98, including a 79-yard TD run.
“That's where it becomes challenging,” Franklin said, “because you've got two completely different styles.”
Besides his long fumble return — his first TD on any level of competition — Johnson has contributed 27 tackles and six tackles for loss this season, tying him for second on the team in both categories. His 2.5 sacks are also second.
Such has been his production to date that Matt Miller of Bleacher Report projected Johnson as a first-round pick in a mock draft that appeared Monday. Johnson said he didn’t see it, and didn’t care about it.
“I’m just trying to play my best and have fun while I’m here — just try to win as many games as we can,” he said.
He gave far more thought to a question about who the best all-around athletes among the Nittany Lions might be. After a long pause, he listed tight end Mike Gesicki, cornerback Christian Campbell and safety Jordan Lucas as the top three, in that order.
“I’m definitely No. 4,” Johnson added with a laugh.
And that much better, apparently, on a dry track.