Tyler Johnson had a cornerback wrapped around his middle, nearly 200 pounds of muscle dragging him toward the turf.
If he hadn’t somehow managed to still leap in the air and snare the ball before coming down with his third touchdown catch of the game, it would have been pass interference. But Johnson did score the game-winner with 13 seconds remaining in the Gophers’ 35-32 victory against Georgia Southern on Saturday, because that’s just what the senior receiver does.
“[No. 6] is the man, just point blank, period,” sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan said. “Put the ball in that area, and he’s going to make a play.”
For the third consecutive game, the Gophers squeaked out a victory to finish the nonconference season 3-0, with a bye week and Big Ten Conference play looming. The Gophers needed two South Dakota State turnovers to win the season opener, double overtime to take Fresno State a week ago and all of Johnson’s considerable skills to beat Georgia Southern at TCF Bank Stadium in front of an announced crowd of 41,021.
Johnson went largely unnoticed in the first two games of the season, mostly because opponents double-covered him as a returning All-Big Ten receiver coming off single-season school records for receiving yards and touchdowns. But Georgia Southern gave him one-on-one matchups, which he defied to make 10 catches for 140 yards and three TDs.
Morgan said he could “absolutely” sense a big game coming for Johnson.
“The last two weeks, guys were bracketing him, and [people were saying], ‘Oh, what’s wrong with Tyler?’ ” Morgan said. “No. Tyler Johnson is Tyler Johnson, and he’s a lot better than he was last year. And he proved that.”
Johnson became the first Gophers receiver with three three-touchdown games. His last score, after two big fourth-quarter plays from the Eagles looked to have doomed the Gophers, was a bit symbolic of his team’s season so far: improbable, desperate, not exactly pretty but still a winner.
The Eagles blocked Gophers freshman kicker Michael Lantz’s field-goal attempt, and senior cornerback Monquavion Brinson returned it 77 yards to cut Minnesota’s lead to 28-26 with 6:05 remaining. Eagles junior linebacker Rashad Byrd then forced a fumble from Morgan and ran it back for a 44-yard touchdown and Georgia Southern led 32-28.
But with 3 minutes, 47 seconds left, the Gophers put together a 13-play, 75-yard drive to score on Johnson’s 2-yard catch with 13 seconds to play and Brinson draped all over him.
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said he has preached to all his wideouts the need to catch and run physically. Then Johnson provided a demonstration.
“Big-time moments, we got to go to our big-time playmakers,” Fleck said. “… He’s got a great core center of gravity. He’s got great core strength. He can jump vertical with anybody. And he’s strong. And that’s how he made that [final TD] play. Pure will.”
Johnson’s coaches and teammates said earlier this week that Johnson is an unselfish player who wasn’t frustrated with opponents keying on him and preventing him making highlight-reel plays to start this season. Johnson echoed that Saturday, just saying how scoring three times was “pretty cool.”
“Just being out there, just working hard every play,” Johnson said. “You never know when your number’s going to be called. And whenever my name was called [Saturday], I just made the best of it.”
The Gophers posted 382 offensive yards to the Eagles’ 198. Of those, 123 were rushing yards from the Eagles’ triple-option offense. But the Gophers still had some glaring mistakes: the blocked field-goal attempt, a first-drive interception and the later fumble by Morgan that either directly resulted in a touchdown or led to a score and an offensive line that allowed five sacks. Morgan completed 19 of 31 passes for 289 yards and those three Johnson touchdowns.
Fleck also made some risky decisions and paid for it. With the ball on the Gophers’ 34-yard line late in the second quarter — and after not converting an earlier third-and-1 — Fleck chose to go for it on fourth down with about a half-yard to cross. The Eagles stuffed running back Bryce Williams again, taking over on downs and eventually scoring on quarterback Justin Tomlin’s 12-yard run to cut the Gophers’ lead to 21-20 heading into halftime.
Fleck said he wouldn’t change that call because he trusts his offense to convert and his defense to stop. But neither unit came through during that particular sequence.
“There were times we did everything to lose the game. There were times we did everything to win the game, including me,” Fleck said. “I did not coach very well, and I take responsibility for a lot of it.
“… But we found a way to win again. And this team has some of the most heart I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”