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Penn State pulls away from San Diego State in fourth quarter

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Christian Hackenberg threw for 296 yards and three touchdowns as Penn State pulled away in the fourth quarter to beat San Diego State 37-21, keeping the Aztecs winless against FBS opponents in 2015.

End zone, meet Austin Johnson.

323 pounds of pure defensive tackle blood jogged 71 yards towards the Penn State student section, wildly cheering just behind the Penn State end zone.

Touchdown, Penn State.

The Nittany Lions’ first fumble recovery touchdown since Mike Hull’s in 2012 was their last during Penn State’s wacky 37-21 victory over San Diego State.

Johnson said he didn’t mind the “fat jokes” ensuing from his 70 yard dash and when asked by coach James Franklin to go in immediately following the first touchdown of his career, he didn’t hesitate.

“When I was running, I thought, 'Oh my goodness, it’s about to go down,'" Johnson said. “Coach talked about scoring on defense and that we needed one of those, so I was happy to provide that.”

The rest of the squad was having a celebratory time both post game and during, only realizing after the fact how motivational and uplifting Johnson’s unique play really was.

When linebacker Troy Reeder was asked to describe Johnson’s running form in one word, it was clear the defensive tackle would be hearing about it for at least a few weeks.

“Overweight-fullback,” Reeder said of Johnson’s running style.

Quarterback Christian Hackenburg stepped into Beaver Stadium for the third Saturday in a row and showed great improvement since his first start at Temple. Hackenburg went 21 of 35 on 296 yards with three touchdowns and zero turnovers against the blitzing Aztecs.

During the Lions’ successful offensive surge in the first half, which completely turned tables in the second, San Diego blitzed on 32 of Penn State’s 46 offensive plays. Hackenburg initially handled the Aztec pressure very well, accumulating 15 first downs and one sack against the blitz in the opening half.

“I thought [Hackenburg] played well,” Franklin said. “I think he’s done some really nice things the last three weeks, in terms of run game and blitz checks. I’ve been pleased with him overall.”

Freshman Saquon Barkley, who was injured later in the game, rushed 66 yards and caught a 22 yard pass from Hackenburg early in the first quarter for the Lions’ first touchdown of the game. Just about ten minutes later, San Diego’s Rashaad Penny, who barely found himself manned up all night, scored a 100 yard kickoff return touchdown for the Aztecs, knotting the score up at 7-7.

A 40 yard field goal from Penn State’s kicker Joey Julius ended the first quarter, and a 24 yard field goal began the next, putting the Lions at a 13-7 advantage.

Penn State found its offensive rhythm and broke away from San Diego after a 13 yard pass from Hackenburg to Mark Allen and an immediate 11 yard pass to Chris Godwin. The Lions went into the half with confidence and ease on a 27-14 score.

“One thing that’s really unique is we’re building depth to our team that is going to keep helping us along the road here now,” Reeder said on Penn State’s special teams. “It’s that type of mentality whether you’re in there with the one’s or two’s, everyone’s held accountable the same way.”

Post halftime, things quickly shifted to sloppiness and inconsistency for the Lions. Penn State lost its touch -- and several players -- allowing the Aztecs to move down the field rather easily.

Penn State suffered a handful of crucial injuries -- Saquon Barkley, Akeel Lynch, Marcus Allen, for a moment Brandon Bell, and even Jordan Lucas, who didn’t the start the game at all.

With Hackenburg’s two top running backs and receivers missing, the defense had to grind harder than ever to maintain a lead over the Aztecs.

Penn State was playing through a haze offensively for the majority of the third quarter before Johnson’s run ignited the sidelines and stadium alike.

“I think that was a huge play from a momentum standpoint for us especially in the kind of groove we were in offensively. We needed something, and the defense did a great job of providing that for us.”

A poor punt from Chris Gulla, a fumble from Penn State’s DeAndre Thompkins and a pass interference early in the quarter allowed San Diego to start its most zealous drive of the game from the Lions’ 21 yard line. A series of passes from quarterback Maxwell Smith to running back Donnel Pumphrey placed the Aztecs on Penn State’s 2nd yard line, 1st and goal from a touchdown.

But the traditional roar invoking student section threw the Aztecs off their game, causing them to take two timeouts within two minutes of each other. After collecting their thoughts and catching their breath, Smith found Pumphrey once again who rushed for a yard into the end zone, making the score 27-21 Penn State.

The Lions’ rushed for a lackadaisical nine yards on three plays on their drive following the touchdown.

The Penn State defensive line stepped up to save the squad from added pressure on the Aztecs' ensuing drive. Anthony Zettel, whose father passed away from cancer late Friday night, carried the team in both skill and mature leadership.

Zettel had seven tackles, 2.5 for loss, half a sack and a fumble recovery in the Lions’ win. Even with a heavy heart, the team was proud of Zettel’s athleticism during his tough time.

“We talk about being a family, we’re going to back that up all the time,” Franklin said. “Special kid, special family. All his brothers in that locker room are going to have his back.”

Teammates Johnson and Carl Nassib helped clean up the half before the Penn State offense slightly improved late in the final quarter.

“I think we’re playing very well at times, but need to be more consistent in all three phases,” Franklin said.

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