The nation's leading passer is an experienced traveler of turnpikes, a mad scientist when it comes to diagnosing defenses, and, as his Twitter handle indicates, a dropper of dimes. He also has a really solid beard, successful in every respect—bushiness, volume, you name it—except keeping him anonymous. Even in Bowling Green, Ohio, Matt Johnson cannot dodge the national spotlight. Not anymore.
After his six-foot frame was deemed too short by recruiters from more recognizable programs five years ago, and then got fat on the couch last fall with a broken hip, Johnson has come back with a season so good that Bowling Green has launched an on-the-fly Heisman Trophy campaign for him. It's a nice gesture, if mostly just that; a Mid-American Conference player has no shot to actually win college football's highest honor, and Johnson knows that. By bringing attention to Johnson's eye-popping numbers, BGSU's sports information department has made a good case for Heisman voters and casual fans alike to give Johnson a look. The timing couldn't be better, given that we've reached November and the annual MAC weeknight games. It helps, too, that Johnson is exceptionally likely to put on a show worth watching.
If you love touchdowns, you'll love Bowling Green. Those Bowling Green touchdowns almost always come from Johnson, who's not afraid to campaign for a seat at the Downtown Athletic Club in December, at least a little, while keeping things in perspective. "Sure, I've thought about it," the fifth-year senior admitted. "Who wouldn't love the chance to sit there next to Leonard Fournette?"
After Wednesday night's 41-27 win against Western Michigan, Johnson is averaging 395.5 passing yards per game, the most in Division I-A. He also ranks first in Division I this season with 36 touchdown passes, and is second in completions with 291. Only four of his 421 pass attempts have been intercepted.
Johnson throws slip screens. He throws comeback routes. He throws the deep ball, too, most often to Roger Lewis, a former Ohio State recruit who's so good that he'll have an NFL decision to make in the next two months. The Bowling Green offense is basically the Baylor offense, minus superfreak Corey Coleman, the 325-pound linemen, and 400-pound tight end LaQuan McGowan. It's the offense that got Bowling Green coach Dino Babers the job after he turned a quarterback named Jimmy Garoppolo loose for two years at Eastern Illinois and then into a NFL draft pick.
The Bowling Green offense is precise, fast, and fun, but it's also more than just a gimmick; Johnson averages 9.39 yards per attempt and 42 attempts per game. By comparison, Baylor's Seth Russell averaged 10.5 yards per attempt but just under 29 attempts per game before his recent neck injury. Washington State's Luke Falk, the only quarterback who's thrown for more yards than Johnson, averages 7.4 yards per pass.
Johnson has thrown 22 touchdown passes in his last five games. He knows that three of those games were against Kent State, Akron, and UMass—he was there, after all—and he has a pretty good answer for those who criticize the level of competition.
"Those numbers are real. Those are actual results," Johnson said. "I think we're a pretty good team and that's not hype. That's been proven, too. We're 7-2. We lost to an SEC team [Tennessee] that just played Alabama to the wire, and we lost by three points to a Top 25 team [Memphis].
"We beat two Big Ten teams on the road. We've hung 60 points on somebody. We've put up 700 yards in a game. What we have done is pretty good. What we do in November we hope will be pretty good, too."
Over the past month, Bowling Green has pushed, among other things, a flyer comparing Johnson's numbers through his first eight games to the numbers posted by the last five Heisman-winning quarterbacks in the same stretch. Johnson's 3,955 passing yards, six 400-yard games, four games of five touchdowns, and 36 total touchdowns top that list.
Any chance Johnson has at becoming less of a secret among voters and casual fans started last week: the Ohio game was the first of three Bowling Green plays on ESPN in a stretch of 20 days.
Babers has said that he doesn't have enough "juice" for his opinion on something as significant as Heisman Trophy voting to count. But he calls Johnson "a gym rat" and "a rare leader" and made a succinct case for Johnson being worthy of an invitation to New York.
"All I know is there was a guy at Northern Illinois who was really good and helped his team win," Babers said, referring to Jordan Lynch, who finished third in Heisman voting in 2013. "That guy got an opportunity to go. If Matt can match his numbers, Matt should have an opportunity to go."
As a junior, Lynch led his team to the Orange Bowl, and then 12 straight wins in 2013 before Bowling Green routed Northern Illinois in the MAC title game behind five touchdown passes from Johnson. Lynch accounted for 47 total touchdowns that year.
Northern Illinois promoted Lynch as a Heisman candidate over a period of four months, and the Orange Bowl run the year before had made him a known national commodity. Last fall, Johnson wasn't even recognized in Bowling Green. He broke his hip in the season opener and spent more time on his couch than ever before. Johnson got up to 240 pounds while awaiting clearance to return to activity and watching another quarterback operate the Babers offense.
"With a broken hip, you can't do much," Johnson said. "The whole list of things you can't do...a lot of times you can't even move. So I was on the couch watching film, just learning, studying. All I could do was ask questions and go watch that film again.
"When I got cleared and it was time to go, I was ready. And just in these last couple weeks, I've seen this whole offense sort of take that next step. Scoring 60 points, setting records...that's been fun. And it comes natural. We're just riding this momentum we started to create in the offseason."
Though he played with other power conference recruits and threw for more than 2,700 yards as a junior at Bishop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, most Big Ten (and then Big East) programs in the region hesitated to offer or didn't offer at all. Bowling Green offered first, and in the end that resonated with Johnson.
"Five years later, I know that seven-hour trip all the way across the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Ohio Turnpike pretty well," Johnson said. "And I'm still only six-foot, still not tall enough for some people. But that's worked out pretty well, too. Bowling Green was right for me, and we're not done yet."
He might not even be done at the end of this season. Johnson could petition the NCAA for a sixth year based on the 2014 injury happening in the first game. No decisions have been made. It may depend on how this month goes for Johnson and whether Babers leaves for a higher-paying job in December. But with an offense just now hitting its stride, and the sort of spontaneous Heisman campaign, there are many compelling reasons for Johnson to come back.
"I talked about it before the season with the coaches and my parents," Johnson said. "We have looked up every [rule], explored every option. But it hasn't been talked about once since the summer. I have been busy. The season I'm having right now, it'd be fun to come back and do that again. It also could be that this is as good as it gets. I really don't know what will happen."
He is, in his own words, "mastering this offense to where I'm taking what the defense gives us and giving it to them at times, too." The weather is about to turn nasty in Northwest Ohio, and the level of competition is going to rise, too. Johnson knows people are watching him and watching Bowling Green, and he's ready to give them a show.
"It's nice to hear and see the recognition," he said. "It's nice to see people tweet about you or whatever. But I'm not aiming for 400 yards every game or some award. I'm running the offense. The notoriety is nice. I won't lie and say I don't look at it all."
Johnson can rattle off past Heisman winners from non-Power Five conferences, even though most of them won before he was born.
"I just know New York is a lot closer to home than Bowling Green," he said. "If they'll have me, I'm there. It's not out of the realm of possibility. But in the meantime we have games to win, and I'm only trying to throw as many touchdowns as I need to so we can keep winning."