STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State running back Saquon Barkley impressed with his first-quarter juking, Christian Hackenberg earned praise for his first-half throwing power -- but 323-pound defensive tackle Austin Johnson stole the show with his moves.
Johnson, the fourth-heaviest player on the Penn State roster, recovered a key fumble early in the fourth quarter and rumbled and stumbled his way 71 yards for the game-changing touchdown. That play gave Penn State a two-possession lead and helped guide the Nittany Lions to a 37-21 win over San Diego State.
Johnson, a redshirt junior, finished with two tackles and 0.5 tackles-for-loss.
The play came when Penn State led just 27-21 early in the fourth quarter. San Diego State found itself on the Penn State 25 and was driving -- until defensive end Carl Nassib sacked the quarterback and forced a fumble. Johnson took it from there, as his teammates jumped on him in the end zone and celebrated.
Penn State improves to 3-1 with the win, while San Diego State falls to 1-3 with the loss.
What the win means for Penn State: There are still question marks on this offense, especially after a very slow start to the second half, but the Lions can at least rest easy after this win. Cupcake non-conference opponent Army is on the schedule next week, so Penn State should resume its conference slate with a 4-1 record. PSU's special teams need to limit their mistakes moving forward.
What the loss means for San Diego State: The Aztecs were the heavy underdogs here, so they can't be faulted too much for the loss. That being said, with a loss already to South Alabama, a win certainly would've been a huge boost to the confidence. San Diego State needs to focus on its conference schedule and that starts next week against Fresno State.
Player of the game: Hackenberg. No, he wasn't perfect -- but he was good enough. With injuries to PSU's top two running backs, Akeel Lynch and Barkley, a lot was placed on the shoulders of Hackenberg. But he still fared pretty well by going 21-of-35 for 296 yards and three touchdowns. He finally gave PSU the vertical passing threat it sorely needed with at least four completions of 30-plus yards.
Unsung hero: Nassib. Sure, Johnson is going to make the highlight reels with his fumble return. But it was Nassib who helped make it all happen. He's the one who got to the quarterback and forced the turnover. He had a strong game, too, with two sacks and the forced fumble.
Top play: Outside of Johnson's fumble return, Penn State's first TD might've been its best. Barkley took a short pass from Hackenberg and appeared to be tackled, but kept his balance, spun and went in for the 22-yard touchdown. It was hard not to be impressed watching that score.
The game turned when …: San Diego State committed two costly turnovers late in the first half. With less than 3 minutes left in the half, with SDSU leading 14-13, the Aztecs muffed a punt -- and then watched PSU capitalize by scoring a touchdown. On the very next drive, Donnel Pumphrey fumbled the handoff and PSU capitalized once more by scoring a TD. PSU went into halftime with a 27-13 lead.