Drop-prone Johnathon Johnson catches Missouri’s fall at a low point

A look inside the fourth-and-1 play that saved Missouri against Memphis and brought the receiver’s confidence back.
Missouri running back Damarea Crockett pretends to punch receiver Johnathon Johnson after he caught a touchdown pass in Missouri's week one win over UT-Martin on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018.

Johnathon Johnson learning to catch resembles a puppy learning to fetch.

Throw Johnson the ball once and he’ll want it right back. It’s a simple notion, but there’s just one problem with it: He hasn’t earned many chances to get it back, due to detrimental drops in three straight games.

The ongoing goal at practice has been to slow himself down, physically and mentally, so throws end up in his hands rather than through them.

“I’m trying to move too fast sometimes,” Johnson said. “It’s just me being focused.”

Johnson found his focus when he needed to at a critical point Saturday, making a catch against his hometown team that may resonate for Missouri all the way to the end of the season. It’s already resonating in his own quest for redemption.

While Missouri’s homecoming crowd of 52,917 was waiting to see whether the offense or punting unit would emerge from a Memphis timeout in the second quarter Saturday, Johnson had a chance to do what he told himself in practice – slow things down.

He already knew his team would still be going for it on a pivotal fourth-and-1. And after an 8-yard catch on the previous snap, he already knew the upcoming play was designed just for him.

“Getting them two pass [designs] back-to-back kind of helped me boost my confidence,” Johnson, a Memphis native, said. “I was confident in Coach [Derek] Dooley’s play calling, that he was gonna keep it on me.”

Missouri needed some confidence right about then. A 21-0 lead had become 21-17 in a matter of moments early in the second quarter, a foreboding sign for a team that had experienced collapses of the double-digit variety three times already in the 2018 season. Missouri had kept its offense on the field before the timeout. A failure on this fourth-and-1 would set up Memphis in optimal field position to take the lead. The gold-and-black Tigers would be at the mercy of their blue counterparts.

“They called the timeout,” coach Barry Odom said, “and we stuck with it.”

Missouri didn’t just stick with the risk to go for it; it stuck with the even riskier play call orchestrated before the timeout. It’s a fourth down design that offensive coordinator Derek Dooley had kept in his back pocket all season. This critical spot was to be its debut.

“It’s been in our offense for a minute,” Johnson said. “I’ve been waiting since like the Georgia game.”

That was four weeks ago. Now, in a fourth-and-short situation that run plays are typically reserved for, Missouri set up its drop-prone receiver in the slot. Senior quarterback Drew Lock rolled right after the snap, while Johnson ran a parallel out route to his right.

But Memphis had anticipated the play enough to position its defensive backs in a coverage set that gave them outside leverage on the redshirt junior receiver.

“I knew I had to slip back in,” Johnson said.

So against his momentum, the receiver turned his body back the other way to create a target for the still-rolling Lock. The quarterback recognized what he called an “in-play adjustment” and threw behind Johnson. Maybe a little too far behind him.

“Wasn’t a great throw, but [Johnson] was able to maneuver his body around,” Odom said.

Johnson twisted his body and dived backward, making an acrobatic grab for another eight yards as he hit the ground. Missouri had a first down.

At the end of the season, it may be remembered as one of the biggest plays of the year.

“That was a heck of a play,” Odom said.

Tight end Albert Okwuegbunam slipped through the seam for an easy 58-yard touchdown catch on the next play. Missouri’s lead was back to double digits. Adam Sparks reeled in an interception on the first play of Memphis’ ensuing possession, and Missouri scored again on the next play.

Just as 21-0 had become 21-17, 21-17 had become 34-17. The home Tigers added another touchdown not long after and went into halftime with the game all but won, leading 48-20 against a team that had nearly dethroned No. 10 Central Florida the week before.

For Johnathon Johnson, it may have been something of a reckoning.

“We’ll never lose confidence in JJ,” senior offensive lineman Kevin Pendleton said. “He had a tough stretch, but when we need someone, he’ll always be someone we go to.”

Being a veteran means having short-term memory, Pendleton says. All that mattered to Johnson on fourth down was the last play. There was no room in his attention span for negatives. No room for his drop-turned-interception against Georgia, no room for his botched potential touchdown at South Carolina, no room for another early drop that kept him sidelined in Alabama.

“He doesn't let anything get to him,” Okwuegbunam said.

The recent struggles have been centric on catchable throws that Lock put right in Johnson’s hands. This momentous catch was nowhere near that. It demonstrated a veteran’s literacy of a play’s development and an athlete’s instinct in getting to the ball. Johnson is well aware of the drops – when asked about it, he aided the question by reminding that they’ve occurred “the last three weeks” – but they haven’t diminished his confidence in catching Lock’s darts.

“Those plays I can make in my sleep,” he said.

That’s been the mentality he says he keeps at practice, and it’s one his teammates insist he instills in the largely younger group of receivers.

“There’s not a guy that practices harder than him,” Odom said. “There’s not a better teammate than Johnathon Johnson.”

Edited by Adam Cole | acole@themaneater.com

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