Johnnie Dixon sat on the turf with his legs out in front of him. A voice came on in the press box and mentioned the word injury.
Oh no. Not again. Not Dixon. Not now.
Entering the season, Dixon, a redshirt junior, was best known as Ohio State’s wide receiver whose knees were determined to leave his potential untapped.
So, as Dixon sat there on the turf early in the fourth quarter against No. 6 Penn State, before the Buckeyes’ eventual comeback seemed attainable, it was easy for the minds of 109,302 people in the stands and the players and coaches on the sidelines to recall Dixon’s battles with knee tendinitis and arthritis.
It turns out, this time it was only leg cramps, which Dixon said are “the worst.”
And it turns out, Ohio State got lucky it was nothing more.
Dixon would return to the field and make two catches, both for touchdowns, that were critical in the No. 6 Buckeyes’ 39-38 come-from-behind win against the No. 2 Nittany Lions.
“I was very emotional when I made those catches,” Dixon said. “It’s just crazy the feelings that were going through my mind knowing that we needed a play, and we always tell each other that it’s going to be on us, on [the wide receivers], to make a play which we did.”
The first play came with just over 11 minutes left on the clock, two snaps after junior cornerback Denzel Ward’s momentum-shifting blocked punt, with Penn State leading 35-20.
Dixon started outside the right hash mark, and quickly cut across the field before turning back upfield and blowing past junior linebacker Manny Bowen into an open expanse.
Quarterback J.T. Barrett, who finished 33-of-39 for 328 yards, delivered the ball to Dixon, who ran the final 16 yards into the end zone for a 38-yard score.
As Dixon saw the ball coming his direction, the thoughts in his mind were simple.
“Pay dirt. Score,” he said.
The second play, perhaps more pivotal than the first, came with 4:20 remaining and Ohio State down 11, threatening to make it a one-score game.
Barrett found Dixon on the right side with a well-placed, 10-yard fade, which Dixon hauled in despite junior cornerback Amani Oruwariye’s tight coverage.
Dixon said when Ohio State realized Penn State had no safety on the play, he became one of two primary options on the play. And, it turns out, when his number was called, the former four-star recruit, who began the year with only seven career catches for 55 yards, came through.
“I’m telling him all game that ball is going to come to us and we’ve got to make the play,” redshirt junior Terry McLaurin said. “We need Johnnie, and what he did tonight for our offense and our unit, he’s a leader for this team.”
Outside the program, however, Dixon has long been doubted, with some fans wondering if he would ever be healthy enough to help the team. And beyond that, this entire season the offense, and the wide receivers in particular, have been criticized for their production — or lack thereof.
But as the Buckeyes roared back to keep their College Football Playoff hopes alive, it was Dixon and the receivers who stepped up down the stretch and helped Barrett.
Dixon now has 13 catches for 332 yards on the season. After the Buckeyes’ 31-0 loss in the Fiesta Bowl, Dixon wasn’t sure he wanted to stick around for it.
He admitted as much following the Spring Game, in which he tapped into some of the talent he displayed Saturday by hauling in six passes for 108 yards. The injuries and the disappointment had almost gotten to be too much.
McLaurin remembers the conversation he had with Dixon and redshirt junior H-back Parris Campbell in the hallway of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center about it.
“Parris was just like, ‘We need you to come back. It’s going to be different next year,’” McLaurin said.
But as Dixon laid injured on the turf early in the fourth quarter, it seemed like the same story might be happening again.
It turns out, it was finally different.