In the third quarter of last week’s 48-34 win vs. Sandusky, the Norwalk senior quarterback was flushed out of the pocket, prepared to tuck the ball and run, only to see a defender waiting for him.
Johnson then retreated farther back, sprinted toward the left sideline with three more defenders in pursuit, stopped and threaded a pass across his body between three defenders.
The pass was bobbled by his receiver — who appeared surprised the ball even got to him — and intercepted. It was his first interception of the season in 72 pass attempts up to that point. It was also an example of Johnson’s ability to extend a play to the absolute limit, always looking to make something happen.
“I was taught to never give up. So if there is a chance to run or scramble a bit longer to see if there is another guy open, I’m going to do that,” Johnson said. “Keep the play going, never give up until you hear that whistle and know you are going to go down. That’s my mentality. I’m not going down until we get a good play out of it.”
Fifth-year Norwalk coach Chris MacFarland can only shake his head when he looks back on the aforementioned play.
“He has such a belief in himself,” MacFarland said of Johnson. “Even though he’s way out to the side and it’s going to take everything he has to get his body back turned to get a real good motion on it … he probably knows it’s not a good thing, but his competitiveness says ‘I can make this play.’”
Johnson has more than made plays this season for the Truckers, who are 5-1 overall and No. 5 in the Division III Region 8 computer rankings entering Friday’s game at Bellevue (3-3).
Through six games, Johnson is 49-of-77 passing for 1,107 yards with 17 touchdowns and the lone interception, good for a 141.4 QB rating via the NFL formula.
With an 11.03 time in the 100-meter dash in track, Johnson is the best dual threat player in Norwalk history, adding 356 yards and 5 TDs on the ground on 53 attempts (6.7 average), although almost 100 yards have been lost off that net total from sacks in the backfield.
“He believes he can make something happen. And sometimes does that hurt and lead to mistakes? Sure, but we’re never going to take that away from him,” MacFarland said, adding that Johnson’s style of play has taught the offensive line not to give up on blocks and for receivers to come back to the ball when necessary.
“It’s a great thing to watch him do it,” MacFarland added. “Even though at the end of it, sometimes as a coach you say, ‘Well, that wasn’t the call at all, but it looks pretty darn good.’”
While Johnson won’t dispute he’s pleased with his play and where the Truckers currently stand, he still has a painful Week 4 reminder of what could have been.
Leading perennial Northern Ohio League power Tiffin Columbian with less than six minutes left, a special teams gaffe and several key turnovers opened the door for a 24-20 win by the Tornadoes — Norwalk’s lone loss of the season.
“It’s good being 5-1, but it was tough losing to Tiffin because we were in the game and things didn’t go right,” Johnson said. “We had a ton of penalties and turnovers, and that can’t happen against a team like that. So it’s good to be 5-1, but we know we could have played better and been 6-0.
“I’ve had some mental mistakes that need cleaned up, they’re not making the team any better,” he added. “In a game, I go to some bad habits, and I just shouldn’t. I’ve done alright, but I can play better.”
A year ago, Norwalk took a 7-0 record to Bellevue and left with a 27-point loss in one of the bigger regular season games of 2012. Knowing the Redmen have losses to three state-ranked opponents, Johnson said the Truckers are trying to downplay the week ahead rather than play it up.
“The team is ready, so we know it’s a big game, but we’re not going to hype it up any more,” he said. “We’re treating it like another game, another week, and to practice hard and go out and try to beat those guys.”
One thing that can’t be completely ignored, is the playoff talk. Norwalk has just one trip to the playoffs, when it won the Class AA state championship in 1974 with a pair of victories over Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary (20-7) and Louisville St. Thomas Aquinas (27-17).
Now, 39 years later, a first-ever home game in the first round could be in the offering if things break right.
“It has a little bit, it comes around every now and then around here,” Johnson said of the playoff topic. “We just know we have to keep getting the job done every Friday. We don’t want to lose sight of the task at hand this week, and the three weeks after that. If we take care of business every Friday, good things will happen.
“We’re just looking to win out,” he added. “We just have to worry about ourselves every Friday so that when the playoffs do start, we’ve done everything we can to make sure we’re in there.”