STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Facing Larry Johnson one-on-one, Michigan State safety Jason Harmon stood the Penn State tailback up at the 4-yard line -- then felt himself being pushed back, step by step, into the end zone.
Just another defender brushed aside.
Johnson did that a lot in 2002, becoming only the ninth Division I-A player to run for 2,000 yards in a season. That rare feat makes him one of the leading contenders for the Heisman Trophy, which will be awarded Saturday night.
Hitting Johnson isn't enough. You also have to deal with the chip on his shoulder, the years of frustration, the expectations he puts on himself.
''There's always that little monster in the back of my mind that says, 'What if you did this? What if you did that?''' Johnson said. ''My father always says that's been my problem. He tells me, 'You had a great season, you ought to look back and enjoy,' and it's hard for me to do that.''
Johnson feels he has too much to prove.
When he came to Penn State, he thought people were whispering that he only made the team because his father, Larry Johnson Sr., was on the coaching staff.
Things reached a low point in 2000, when Johnson, then a sophomore, shared time in the backfield with juniors Omar Easy and Eric McCoo.
After a shocking 24-6 home loss to Toledo, he blamed coach Joe Paterno, saying Penn State's offense had become too predictable.
''Everybody knows what we're doing,'' Johnson said then. ''Sometimes I don't even know what the play is, and I can sit back there and guess the play. The system has been around too long.''
Frustrated after getting only eight carries for 28 yards in Penn State's first two games that season, he considered transferring to Maryland or North Carolina.
He also was in a hurry when he had the ball, rarely waiting for the line to open up a hole. As soon as he touched the ball, he was off, racing the defense to the corner or trying to bowl over a 300-pound lineman.
''Larry, at times, lost his patience,'' said his father, a defensive line coach. ''But during the process, Joe told him early on, 'Your time is going to come.' Fortunately, it happened.''
Johnson's style changed this year. Although still not afraid to bowl over a defender, he chooses his spots better, waiting for holes to open so that his first hit is from a safety instead of a lineman.
''The reason Larry is doing so well is patience,'' Paterno said. ''Larry had been one of those guys, 'Give me the ball, I'm going to run over you if you are in my way,' instead of waiting for some blockers and trying to be a smart runner.''
Johnson has become one of the most daunting backs in Penn State history. He shattered rushing records both for a game -- he now has the four highest single-game rushing marks in school history -- and for a season, passing such greats as Lenny Moore, Lydell Mitchell, Franco Harris and 1973 Heisman winner John Cappelletti.
Johnson finished with 2,015 rushing yards, averaging just over 8 per carry. His 341 yards receiving are the most ever by a Penn State running back. And his 2,575 all-purpose yards this year are a Penn State record and ninth best in NCAA history.
''He's an amazing football player,'' said Paterno, who doesn't often promote his players for postseason honors. ''People don't realize how many passes he's caught. He's one of the best punt blockers we've had here. Larry Johnson is one of the greatest football players I've ever been around, if not the greatest.''
Johnson prefers to deflect praise toward his offensive line. Twice this year, first after rushing for 147 yards against Louisiana Tech, then after his school-record 327-yard game at Indiana, he took the line out for dinner.
Johnson is a finalist for the Walter Camp and Maxwell awards the nation's top player and the Doak Walker award for running backs. His 10th-ranked Nittany Lions will play No. 19 Auburn in the Capital One Bowl on New Year's Day.
Despite all that, Johnson still has that chip on his shoulder, and still hears only the critics, who note that he failed to reach 100 yards rushing in any of Penn State's three losses.
''If they're going to hold it against me, then I'd rather not win it. If that's going to be my flaw, then give it to someone else,'' Johnson said. ''I can only try so hard, only go 110 percent, and if they don't look at that, then don't give me the award.''
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