After two games, Bowling Green’s redshirt senior quarterback leads the nation in passing yards. He is on pace to break the single-season FBS record. And he has Memphis coach Justin Fuente saying the Falcons will be “a pretty significant step up in competition” after the Tigers beat a Big 12 opponent last week.
“You’re not going to stop him,” said Fuente, whose 2-0 team faces Johnson and the Falcons at 3 p.m. ET Saturday on ASN. “It’s not going to happen.”
It hasn’t yet.
Johnson shredded Tennessee’s secondary for 424 yards and two touchdowns in a 59-30 road loss to an SEC opponent on Sept. 5. Last week at Maryland, Johnson set career highs with six touchdowns and 491 passing yards in a 48-27 route of a Big Ten opponent. He became the only Falcons quarterback to throw for 400 yards in consecutive games and was named the Maxwell Award player of the week.
And with 915 passing yards in two games, Johnson is on a clip to surpass the FBS single-season record of 5,833 yards set by Texas Tech QB B.J. Symons in 2003.
“It’s a great team win,” Johnson said, “and for me personally to beat a Power 5 team is great.”
It’s also a great feeling compared to the helplessness Johnson experienced last year. Being deprived of strength or incapacitated doesn’t define the quarterback who led his team to its first conference championship in 22 years.
But something was wrong in last year’s season opener at Western Kentucky, where Bowling Green was in a four-touchdown hole to start the fourth quarter. After Johnson completed consecutive passes to Gehrig Dieter, the Falcons had first-and-10 at WKU’s 24-yard line. In a shotgun formation, Johnson was slammed to the new field turf at Smith Stadium by Hilltoppers defensive lineman Tanner Reeves. Johnson popped back up and three plays later the Falcons scored a touchdown.
Johnson left the field the last series with no assistance; showed no sign of being hurt. He did not return to the game, but no one had any idea about the severity of Johnson’s injury.
“I thought it was my groin,” Johnson said.
Five days later, during his weekly news conference, head coach Dino Babers stunned those in attendance. He announced Johnson had fractured his hip when he was sacked and would be out for the season.
“Walking off the field was (nearly painless) because I had the adrenaline from just playing,” Johnson said. “I kept thinking it was my groin. But you give the body a chance to rest. I woke up the next day and nearly couldn’t get out of bed. Trying to put my feet on the floor was almost impossible. It was the worse thing I ever felt in my life.”
Down was Johnson, who replaced four-year starter Matt Schliz in the 2013 season opener. Johnson, an under-the-radar prospect from Bishop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg, Pa., passed for 3,467 yards and 25 touchdowns that year to lead the Falcons to their first MAC championship in 22 seasons.
Johnson became a spectator for the remaining 13 games of 2014. He was on the sidelines for home games and on the couch for road games. It was exhilarating to watch James Knapke rally the Falcons in the final 1:50 to a 45-42 victory against Indiana, their first home win against a Big Ten opponent. But it was also frustrating.
“You just want to be out there playing,” Johnson said. “You feel helpless.”
Road games were the worst.
“A couple of us that were hurt would get together at someone’s house, hook a computer up to the TV and watch the game,” Johnson said. “You are yelling at the TV screen. I just wanted to be there so bad so I could help James, the coaches, the receivers any way that I could; be an extra set of eyes.”
Seven months after his injury, Johnson won his starting job back in spring camp. He said his legs were sore, but nothing prevented him from playing.
That was apparent in the Tennessee game. Then against Maryland, Johnson rallied the Falcons from a halftime deficit with 42 points in the second half. They ran 105 plays, rolled up 692 yards and might have finished with more than 48 points if not for two turnovers on downs in Maryland territory before halftime and two missed field goals
“When we scored to take the lead (27-20 in the second half), that was a 99-yard drive,” Johnson said. “I said to the offense, ‘We can do that the (rest of the) game.’ We put our foot down after that.”
With that, Johnson and the Falcons are off on the right foot this season.