Linebacker hopeful to stop Taylor

UNIVERSITY PARK — It’s easy to see that Penn State’s defense had its hands full last week at Michigan.

The Wolverines got off 69 plays and ran past the Nittany Lions — literally and figuratively — for a crushing 42-7 win. All but 17 of those play calls were designed runs, totaling to 252 yards gained on the ground.

Things won’t get any easier in that aspect for walk-on junior linebacker Jan Johnson, Jr. and the rest of the defense’s supporting cast as Penn State welcomes a run-first, run-heavy Wisconsin team that features one of the game’s best backs, Jonathan Taylor on Saturday.

Johnson, though, says the team is ready for the next challenge.

“At practice on Sunday, we just kind of sat down and just talked about what we still need to accomplish here during the season and what needs to happen,” he said. “I don’t think anybody likes losing, and we don’t want to lose. Our goal, obviously, is to win every game that we play. So, I think that game’s behind us and we’ve kind of put it past us and we’re just focused on doing anything we can to make sure that we get a win this Saturday.”

The Badgers have certainly noticed what worked for the Wolverines last weekend as it gives the Nittany Lions a challenge of stopping Taylor — arguably the most exciting running back in the conference.

“He’s a physical back. He likes to get North-South, not afraid to lower his shoulder and try to run you over,” Johnson said of the sophomore running back. “But he also has that top end speed where he gets through the second level, he’s able to take off. He’s sort of like the back we faced last week (Karan Higdon) from Michigan. (He’s) kind of similar to him, both strong, physical runners.”

Taylor enters the contest with a conference-best 1,363 yards. That’s 400 more than runner-up Higdon. The Badgers’ back also averages a third-best 6.6 yards per carry amongst those with at least 100 carries this year — another category he leads the conference in with 208. His 11 rushing touchdowns are tops in the Big Ten as well.

None of this should come as a surprise for a runner who set the NCAA record for most rushing yards in a season for a freshman (1,997) and needed just the fewest games ever to reach 1,000 yards on the ground (7) a year ago.

None of Taylor’s success scares Johnson or the defense any.

“Last week, if you take away that big run they had in the first quarter — in the first drive — I think we may have met our rushing defense goal there,” Johnson said. “I think our rush defense is pretty good. We just have to stop having one or two misfits that cause them to have a big run. … Otherwise, I think that our rush defense is pretty good.”

This game does come with a much lower anticipation than many were expecting at the start of the season.

The talk of the Badgers in the early portion was how good the offensive line and running game was going to be this year for a team that has lost three of the last four Big Ten Championship Games. It was, unfortunately, expectations too large to live up too.

Penn State knows all about that feeling, too.

The season hasn’t played out how either pictured it going to this point. The hope was this weekend’s game would be a precursor for the conference title game December 1. Unfortunately, Penn State is all but mathematically out of that equation and the Badgers would like to keep their slim hopes alive as they’re currently tied with Purdue and trail Northwestern — a team that defeated both the Badgers and Boilermakers already this year.

SUBHD: Runs in the family

Johnson has the privilege of competing for the most recognizable team on campus as well as the most successful in recent history. The linebacker is also a heavyweight wrestler for a Nittany Lions squad that has won seven of the last eight national championships.

Johnson isn’t expected to see much, if any, time on the mat as he is expected to rejoin the wrestling team after the football season concludes. Right now, he sits third on the depth chart in the 285-pound weight class that includes All-American Nick Nevills.

It’s all about saying he did something similar to those before him.

Attending Penn State runs in the family as Johnson’s father Jan Johnson, Sr. wrestled for the Nittany Lions from 1981-84 and his mother Theresa Johnson swam for the school from 1983-86. That’s not all, though, as his uncle Joel Johnson also wrestled there from 1979-82 and aunt Deborah Hayes also swam for the Lions from 1986-89. He had another aunt attend the university.

Jan Johnson Jr. never really felt the pressure to live up to his father’s reputation as an athlete, but it was something he knew he wanted to do even before he was a two-time Class 3A state wrestling champion for Governor Mifflin.

“He didn’t really ever push me to wrestle or play football or really even go to Penn State when I was younger,” he said. “I always just wanted to come here to Penn State. … I had already made my mind up that I wanted to play football which is why I came here. Then that opportunity came to join the wrestling team and I before I had even told (my family) about it, I had already spoken to Cael (Sanderson) and (James) Franklin and pretty much decided I was going to go do this. … Of course he was happy about it, my parents were happy about it. He didn’t really care what I did as long as I enjoyed what I was doing.”