This is a story of two plays, one week apart.
Both take place in the middle of the second quarter. Both involve Mississippi State sophomore running back Dillon Johnson.
In the first, Johnson commits a mistake that ends a promising Bulldogs drive. In the second, he keeps an MSU possession alive.
So what changed in the seven days since Johnson walked off the field on Sept. 4, embroiled in a “dark moment” even victory couldn’t brighten?
He went to church.
The sophomore credits a Wednesday visit to Pinelake Church in Starkville for restoring his confidence after a rough game he couldn’t easily shake off.
“I really had to just talk to God, and he really helped me out,” Johnson said.
After a substandard performance in Mississippi State’s 35-34 comeback win over Louisiana Tech, Johnson needed something. The Bulldogs were set up on first down at the Tech 40-yard line when Johnson caught a short pass out of the backfield from quarterback Will Rogers.
But on the left sideline, Johnson fumbled the ball, and Tech’s Baylen Buchanan snagged it before going out of bounds.
After that, Jo’quavious Marks received every carry at running back. Rogers looked for Johnson early in the third quarter but was ruled down for a sack before tossing an incompletion, and Johnson caught back-to-back passes of 8 and 5 yards in the fourth quarter.
Still, the sophomore knew he’d had a rough game, saying his confidence had been taken.
“I didn’t think he played as well last week as he’s capable of,” head coach Mike Leach said.
Johnson did all he could. He rewatched game film, trying to see where things went wrong. He talked to his parents. And on Wednesday, he went to Pinelake.
“I just needed to go to church, bro,” Johnson said. “I hadn’t gone to church in a little while, and I just needed to go and speak to God. He really spoke to me.”
Whatever Johnson heard, it’s clear he listened. He was Mississippi State’s leading rusher with 18 yards and its leading receiver with 70 yards, putting on a bounce-back performance.
Leach, who said he’s still not sure how to answer the question of whether Johnson or Marks is the Bulldogs’ best running back, was hardly floored by it.
“I find Dillon to be a little bit more of a surprise to others who aren’t watching the film and the practices every day, because he’s really been doing some great things since the start of camp,” Leach said.
Take Johnson’s impressive second-quarter catch from Rogers. On second-and-13 at the Mississippi State 34 after a false start on right tackle Scott Lashley, Johnson swung around the right side and dove to catch a throw with a little too much air on it. He landed hard at the 50 with a hard-won first down.
The Bulldogs went on to turn over the ball on downs at the NC State 32, but Johnson’s play wasn’t forgotten. Leach noted the Greenville St. Joseph product practically could have scored had Rogers’ throw been accurate.
“It was a great catch, and he kept the drive going,” Leach said. “He laid out for the sucker. If we put it on him, then he gets another 40 yards.”
To Johnson, credit the return of his conviction to that midweek church visit. He recommended visiting Pinelake, stressing the importance of being around “positive people.”
And after Saturday’s performance, Johnson is again one of them.
“It’s a confidence thing,” he said. “This game, I had it back.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.