HUNTINGTON — Devon Johnson ran for 151 yards in Marshall’s opening game Saturday, but his best run may have been the one where he wasn’t carrying the ball.
The Thundering Herd was nursing a 35-27 lead at Miami (Ohio), and needed a score to put the game away. In what turned out to be its longest touchdown drive, the Herd reached the Miami 4-yard line. A pass interference penalty put the ball at the 2, first down.
To the surprise of nobody on either side, quarterback Rakeem Cato stuck the ball in Johnson’s gut, and Johnson hit the line hard. A swarm of determined RedHawk defenders tried to keep the 245-pound “Rockhead” from crossing the goal line.
But Johnson didn’t have the ball. Cato had pulled it away at the last possible moment, sneaking around the left end for the touchdown that put the Herd up 42-27 with 2:01 left. That stood as the final score.
A lot of people bit on the play-action fake. Fans, media members, even a Marshall player or three. Even Johnson thought he had the football at first, but he didn’t let up when he knew he was empty-handed.
The play was a simple zone read, performed hundreds of times over the last three seasons. Cato had the final call on who ran the ball.
“Coach [Chris] Barclay, the running back coach, always stressed to us, ‘Carry out your play fake. That could be the change of the game,’ and it was,” Johnson said. “At first, there, I really thought I had it, and I just kept running. I kept getting hit, hit, hit, hit, hit, hit, and they kept hitting me.
“I realized, ‘Hey, listen, I don’t even have the ball, now.’ I looked over and Cato is diving into the end zone with the ball.”
Center Chris Jasperse said, “If you watch the film, it was funny, because a lot of O-linemen are over there trying to push him over the goal line, and Cato’s over there. I didn’t know it until [Sunday], watching the film. It was pretty funny.”
Johnson owned Conference USA’s third-highest rushing total of the weekend, behind Texas-El Paso’s Aaron Jones (237 yards vs. New Mexico) and Alabama-Birmingham’s Jordan Howard (179 vs. Troy). Chances are Johnson’s yards were the most physical of the trio.
“Stiff-arming guys, running guys over. Nobody wants a part of him, I’ll tell you that much,” Jasperse said. “Some of their guys thought they wanted some of him, and he took them down. And then the next guy would come up and get some, and he’d run over him, too.
“It’s good to see a back running the ball like that.”
Johnson had a 55-yard non-scoring run in the first half, but his 27-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter was more critical. The Herd went for it on fourth-and-2 with a 28-20 lead at the time and Johnson was stonewalled on fourth-and-1 to end the previous series. A failure would have given the RedHawks a chance to tie the game.
As the play unfolded, Johnson hit the line hard and blew through a defender on his way to the touchdown.
“He ran over that safety and it was like, ‘Pow!’ ” Jasperse said, punching his own hand for emphasis. “It was pretty cool to see him do that, just to show that he still had it in the fourth quarter, and he can still carry the ball. That was big-time.”
From the final play of the third quarter, a 16-yard gain, to the game’s end, Johnson had 11 of his 19 carries for 72 yards. He said he felt relatively fresh and stronger in the fourth quarter, all the better to bounce off a tackler or two.
He did feel some extra bumps associated with playing his first collegiate game at running back. Remember, he was a linebacker when he first started in the MU program, then moved to tight end before going to the backfield in August camp.
“It was a good kind of sore. It felt good to finally be sore,” Johnson said. “Last year, I wasn’t as sore; Gator [Hoskins] was in there more [at tight end] than anybody. But it actually felt good to be sore, for once, after a game.
“Put in a good day of work. I got paid.”
And made a few tacklers pay.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsmock@wvgazette or follow him @dougsmock.