TAMPA — If there's a common thread in USF's last two close-call victories, it's a convincing reminder that when the Bulls need to rally, quarterback Matt Grothe looks to senior receiver Taurus Johnson.
As the Bulls travel to Miami this week to face Florida International, fans can recall the first improbable rally that gave Johnson his first career touchdowns, helping the Bulls back from a 20-7 deficit to beat the Golden Panthers in Tampa two years ago.
"He plays with such emotion, and because of that, when you get him involved, it lifts the whole team," receivers coach Mike Canales said. "I call him 'Dynamite,' because you light a fuse, sooner or later it's going to go off. That's how he plays."
Against FIU, the Bulls trailed by 13 points in the third quarter when Johnson scored his first college touchdown, on a reverse in which he broke four tackles. Down 20-14 with three minutes to play, Grothe found Johnson down the left sideline for the go-ahead score. The two have been quite the connection since.
"More than ever," Grothe said. "Me and T.J. are always side by side coming out before the game starts, and the whole way he's telling me no matter what happens, he's got me. You throw him something, he makes plays. He's made so many amazing catches."
Two weeks ago against UCF, Johnson had a career game with six catches for 143 yards, but the biggest came in overtime, when the Bulls faced third and 10 from the UCF 25. Grothe found Johnson between two defenders in the end zone for the deciding touchdown in a 31-24 win.
If you thought that was the back of the end zone, you didn't see Johnson's juggling catch on his back as he slid out of the back of the end zone in Friday's win against Kansas. Initially ruled an incompletion, it was reversed on review, and the 21-yarder tied the score at 20; the Bulls had been down 20-3.
"Me and Matt have this connection," said Johnson, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound sociology major. "The last couple of weeks have been good because the coaches have called my number a lot. Anything I can do to help my team win, I'll do it."
Johnson, who was slowed by an ankle injury in the second half of last season, has been honored as USF's offensive playmaker of the year the last two years, and Grothe isn't the only teammate who can appreciate what he brings to an offense. Junior safety Nate Allen was his quarterback at Cape Coral High and remembers how Johnson could make a quarterback look good.
"T.J. has God-given ability and a knack for big plays in tight situations," Allen said. "He was like that in high school. I remember sometimes I would just throw it up to him and let him go get it. He's good for that. He's just a playmaker."
Canales said if Johnson needs something to play at the next level, it's consistency, making catches and plays every week as he has the past two games. He points to the opener against Tennessee-Martin in which Johnson was a nonfactor with one catch for 10 yards.
"It was very disappointing how he played," Canales said. "He didn't play well, had a drop, wasn't involved, wasn't into it. I ripped his butt about it, came back and challenged him the whole week."
Johnson has responded in the last two games, including on special teams, where he has a team-high seven kickoff returns for 125 yards; twice last week his helmet popped off from the force of tackles. Canales said focusing on Johnson's downfield blocking and eliminating penalties will help make him a complete receiver.
"We've talked a lot about it: 'We know you can catch the ball, know you're explosive, know you can run,' " Canales said. " 'But do you block? Do you take plays off? Are you a team player?' … We know we've got to try to get him the ball as much as possible. We understand that once he gets the ball, big things happen."