3:30 PM ET, November 23, 2002
Beaver Stadium, University Park, PA
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) -- If Michigan State receiver Charles Rogers had a Heisman Trophy vote, his choice would be easy: Penn State running back Larry Johnson.
Larry Johnson ran for four touchdowns and 279 yards -- in the first half.
Rogers himself was a strong candidate for college football's top individual honor, but he and the rest of the Spartans got a good look at why Johnson merits consideration.
Johnson completed his sensational late-season surge by becoming the ninth player in NCAA Division I-A history to rush for at least 2,000 yards Saturday when he racked up 279 and four touchdowns in the first half of Penn State's 61-7 victory Saturday.
"He's got my vote for the Heisman,'' Rogers said. "I saw firsthand what he could do.''
Johnson scored on runs of 11, 78, 11 and 38 yards, and his last run gave the Nittany Lions (No. 16 ESPN/USA Today, No. 15 AP) a 48-0 lead with 2:38 left in the first half. Penn State got the ball back with a minute left, and Johnson ran onto the field with the rest of the offense before he was called back.
Mercifully for the Spartans, Johnson's day -- and his remarkable regular season -- was over.
"I had a great season and a great run. This is the ultimate way to cap off this season,'' Johnson said. "I didn't think I could be a 1,000-yard back. This was a long season, and I got frustrated at times, but I really kept pushing and kept through all the hard times, and I had success with it.''
Johnson finished with 2,015 yards, becoming the first Penn State player to top the mark. He also set an NCAA record by averaging 8.02 yards per carry, eclipsing the mark of 7.8 set by Nebraska's Mike Rozier in 1983.
"If you'd have said to me he's going to have 2,000 yards in one year, I'd have said, 'Aw, come on,' '' Penn State coach Joe Paterno said. "He finally got that feel for things, and he's spectacular. He's like a man playing against boys out there.''
The senior entered the season with only 866 career yards rushing. He struggled in an ineffective three-back lineup for two years, and the Nittany Lions endured consecutive losing seasons for the first time in Paterno's career.
This season, Johnson's success has lifted the team. The Nittany Lions (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten) are headed for their first bowl game since the 1999 season. Ohio State's victory over Michigan earlier Saturday virtually guaranteed Penn State a spot in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando.
For Michigan State (4-8, 2-6), the loss ends a season plagued by problems both on and off the field. The Spartans were ranked as high as No. 15, but they collapsed midseason. Quarterback Jeff Smoker entered a substance-abuse program, and coach Bobby Williams was fired three weeks ago.
Watching Johnson run up and down the field was just the final indignity. The 61 points allowed by the Spartans were the most they've given up since 1922, when they lost 63-0 to Michigan.
Johnson didn't take long to get going. On Penn State's second possession, he went up the middle, then broke left for 20 yards to the Spartans 11. He took the next handoff up the middle and was stood up by safety Jason Harmon at the 4, but Johnson just muscled Harmon into the end zone for a 7-0 lead with 10:19 left in the first quarter.
Johnson also had 10 yards receiving, giving him 341 for the season and breaking the Penn State season record for yards receiving by a running back.
The victory also was the 336th career win for Paterno, who has more wins than any Division I-A coach.
Zack Mills scored on a quarterback keeper, and Bryant Johnson scored twice in the second quarter, returning a punt 81 yards for a touchdown and catching a 41-yard touchdown pass from Mills to make it 28-0. Bryant Johnson finished with two catches for 57 yards and reached second place on Penn State's career yards receiving list with 2,008.
"One of the things that hurt us was big plays,'' Michigan State coach Morris Watts said. "That's a good football team.''
Minutes after Bryant Johnson's TD catch from Mills, Larry reclaimed the spotlight. Mills faked a pitch left, then pitched right to Johnson. After running into a crowd on the right side, Johnson cut back across the field and sprinted away from everybody for the 78-yard score.
Michigan State didn't score until the third quarter, when Jaren Hayes' 9-yard run up the middle made it 48-7.
Rogers broke his own school record for catches in a season with 68 after catching 67 last year. He finished the game with 64 yards on five receptions. He said that he'll decide next week whether to return for his senior year or leave for the NFL.