COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 21 The Citadel at Chattanooga

The Citadel's Rod Johnson returned a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown in the final minute of the Bulldogs' 38-31 win at Mercer last weekend. Photo by Frank Mattia/Icon Sportswire

In The Citadel's locker room at halftime Saturday, Rod Johnson sought out his teammate and good friend, Grant Drakeford.

Johnson, a junior slotback for the Bulldogs, had slogged through a disappointing half in 90-degree heat at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. He was stopped for no gain on his first two carries, and at halftime had totaled three yards on three attempts.

And in the final minutes of the first half, Johnson committed what could have been a fatal mistake for the Bulldogs, catching a kickoff and stepping out of bounds on his own 4-yard line, putting The Citadel in terrible field position.

Now, with the Bulldogs trailing by three points at the half, Johnson confided in Drakeford, a senior and fellow slotback.

"I knew I wasn't playing very well, and I knew my mind wasn't there for some reason," Johnson said. "I pulled Grant over and told him, 'Look, we are going to win this game. But I've got to play better, and you are going to get better out of me in the second half, I promise you."

It took almost 30 minutes of game time, but Johnson made good on his promise to Drakeford. His 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, with just 57 seconds left to play, was the difference in a much-needed 38-31 victory for the Bulldogs, their first of the season.

Johnson's clutch return, The Citadel's first kickoff return for a touchdown since Scooter Johnson did it against VMI in 2002, earned him a Southern Conference player of the week award. And it was voted the top FCS play of the week on Twitter.

"To be honest, I haven't watched it that many times," said Johnson, a 5-11, 198-pounder from Ninety Six, which is near Greenwood in upstate South Carolina. "When it happened in the game, I was like, 'Okay, we scored, but our defense still has to go back on the field, and (Mercer) still has a chance to score.

"I was more concerned with just getting the win."

Johnson, who also ran for a 4-yard TD in the game, was relieved that his self-described "boneheaded mistake" on the first-half kickoff, stepping out of bounds at his own 4, did not cost the Bulldogs.

"I honestly didn't know where I was on the field," Johnson said. "I didn't know I was that close to the sideline. As soon as I caught it, I knew I was going to get yelled at."

Johnson was bailed out just three plays later, after Mercer coach Bobby Lamb called a timeout with with 56 seconds left in the half. Citadel quarterback Jordan Black threw a 77-yard TD pass to Raleigh Webb.

Instead of a discouraging 17-7 deficit at the half, The Citadel was down by just 17-14 and had seized the momentum.

"When I made that mistake, I really felt like that if we lost the game, it would be on me," Johnson said. "I went over to JB and Raleigh and told them, 'Ya'll boys really bailed me out.'"

A Shrine Bowl player at Ninety Six High School, Johnson redshirted as a Citadel freshman and showed immediate promise in his second season. In his first action of the 2016 season, Johnson ran for 69 yards and three touchdowns on just six carries in a 37-14 victory at Western Carolina.

He finished with 327 yards and five touchdowns that season, averaging a team-best 8.6 yards per carry as the Bulldogs went 10-2 and won a second consecutive SoCon championship.

But asthma sidelined Johnson during spring practice in 2017, and he totaled only 171 yards on carries as the Bulldogs went 5-6 last season. He retained his knack for the big play, scoring two TDs and catching an 18-yard pass for a score.

This season, coach Brent Thompson hoped for a breakout year from a healthy Johnson, who majors in exercise science and plans to become a chiropractor.

"Rod has battled some things during his career, but he got himself in such great shape this offseason," Thompson said. "We knew this could be a breakout year for him. We always talk about our speed on the perimeter, and we never know if we have enough. But that's something Rod can give us."

Indeed, on his game-changing kickoff return, Johnson followed blocks from Gunner Covey, Jordan Williams and Dijon Profit before pulling away from Mercer defenders in the final 30 yards.

Among the first to congratulate Johnson was special-teams coach J.P. Gunter, who left Johnson in the game on the kickoff return despite his earlier mistake.

"That meant a lot to me," Johnson said. "It showed that nobody is perfect, but the coaches will stick with you and believe that you can make plays."

Reach Jeff Hartsell at 843-937-5596. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_fromthePC