COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Jahan Dotson calls playing college football “a kid’s dream.”
“I’m literally a kid out here having fun playing the game that I love,” said Penn State’s senior wide receiver.
But Dotson is no kid. He’s had to work extremely hard to join the ranks of the elite pass-catchers in the Big Ten and nationally. It’s that work that enabled him to run a career-best 4.33-second time in the 40-yard dash last offseason, gave him the ability to leap and reach to catch any pass in his vicinity, and kept his stock rising on the draft boards of NFL teams.
The work paid off Saturday at Maryland Stadium where Dotson caught a career-high 11 passes for a program-record 242 yards plus three touchdowns in a 31-14 victory over the Terrapins that broke the team’s three-game losing streak. And he made it look so easy.
“He makes plays,” Nittany Lions cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields said. “Even when guys know the ball is coming to him, you still have to really guard him to try to stop him. He’s just quicker than you think, stronger than you think, faster than you think. I think he’s the best receiver in the country.”
Dotson’s different styles on his touchdowns showed how he gets the job done. He was behind the defender on his first TD from 38 yards out but had to keep his concentration to fight off the defender on an underthrown pass by Sean Clifford. He jumped with perfect timing to pull down Clifford’s strike on a 21-yard score in the third quarter.
But he saved his best for last, catching a fourth-quarter pass from Clifford down the middle and turning on the jets for the final 65 yards to outdistance the Terrapins’ secondary and score, completing an 86-yard play. In all, Dotson ran for 125 yards after the catch.
“I feel like once you start making a couple of plays, you kind of get hot, kind of get in the zone,” Dotson said. “But I feel with my personal confidence, every time I get the ball, I feel like I can take it the distance. So it’s pretty much having faith in my coaches, trust in our scheme, trust in our game plan, just executing.”
For coach James Franklin, it was a matter of seeing the spectacular again from Dotson.
“I’m not surprised at all by what he did tonight,” Franklin said. “They were playing very aggressive man coverage, either Cover-1 or Cover-0. We knew if we got the ball in his hands, he can make those type of plays. He’s really done it his entire career.
“I’m super proud of not only Jahan Dotson on the football field, but to the type of young man he is, how his parents raised him, the type of student. He’s a perfect representation of what we want to be at Penn State, so I’m not surprised at all.”
The Lions (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten) became bowl eligible with the victory, meaning Dotson has four more games, beginning with Saturday’s noon kickoff against Michigan at Beaver Stadium, to move up to the top of the program’s receiving charts, or close to it.
He now owns the record for most receiving yards in a game, breaking the old mark of 216 set by Deon Butler against Northwestern in 2006. He has 2,507 yards in his career, passing Derek Moye, Chris Godwin, and Allen Robinson into fourth place, 509 yards short of first-place Bobby Engram.
Dotson has caught 163 career passes, fifth all-time. While DaeSean Hamilton’s program-record 214 career catches may be out of reach, Dotson is only 17 short of rising into second place ahead of Butler.
Clifford has been on the front end of 21 of Dotson’s 22 career touchdowns. It’s a connection that slowed down a bit during last year’s COVID-heavy season, but picked up with offseason drills and just throwing the football at all hours of the day and night.
“Jahan is the leader,” Clifford said. “He always wants the ball, always wants the ball. If he could get the ball every play, he would, because that’s just the guy he is. He wants the ball in his hands because he knows the talent he brings to this team. I want the ball in his hands as much as possible.”
Dotson had the big numbers but the Penn State defense again displayed the bend-but-don’t-break style that has been characteristic of its season. Maryland (5-4, 2-4) rolled up 419 total yards and quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, the younger brother of the Miami Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa, completed 41-of-57 passes for 371 yards.
But the Nittany Lions turned back the Terrapins three times in the red zone, twice on turnovers by senior safety Ji’Ayir Brown. Brown short-circuited one drive with a fumble recovery at the Penn State 12 in the third quarter, and clinched the game with an 87-yard pick-six with 2 minutes, 39 seconds left to play.
“It’s definitely the mentality,” Brown said. “We’re looking to get a three-and-out. The worst possible thing we’re thinking is a field goal. We’re not even speaking of touchdowns. We’re planning on stopping everybody. We’re either going to get a turnover or they’re kicking a field goal. That’s not acceptable, people scoring in the red zone.”