COLLEGE PARK, Md. — One summer several years back, Jahan Dotson's mother Robin drove him on an exhausting seven-day football odyssey from Clemson to Alabama to Ohio State to Michigan to Michigan State.
"Don't think that car lasted very long," Dotson later said about the trip.
Every time he runs a route, beats a defender to the ball, snares a pass sailing above his head or scores a touchdown (he had three more Saturday), Dotson remembers moments like those. And he thanks his parents, Robin and Al. He couldn't wait to do that again Saturday night after his record-setting night at Maryland.
"I'm just super grateful to have people like that," Dotson said.
Dotson once again was the engine of Penn State's offense in a 31-14 victory over Maryland, a game that cemented his Nittany Lion legacy. Dotson caught 11 passes for a school-record 242 yards and three touchdowns, carrying an offense that otherwise might not have scored 20 points without him.
Further, Dotson delivered the big play when Penn State needed it most. With the score tied at 14 early in the fourth quarter, Maryland sacked Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford on first down, sending a surge of energy through Maryland Stadium. Dotson promptly deflated it.
Penn State expected plenty of man-to-man coverage from Maryland, something it faced in last year's game and something it took "personally," Dotson said. But, even during the uneven first half (when Dotson had two touchdown catches), Penn State coach James Franklin and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich knew that Dotson could deliver a knockout blow. That came on 2nd and 18.
Clifford saw Maryland's defense, a soft zone with two safeties high, and knew that he simply had to get Dotson the ball. Dotson stuttered to feign a short route, then blew by two Maryland linebackers into the secondary.
Eighty-six yards later, Dotson had scored a career-long touchdown, giving Penn State a 21-14 lead that changed the game's tenor completely.
"It's always nice when I can just throw the ball and watch him [run] all the way down the field and just hang out in the back," said Clifford, who completed 27 of 47 passes for 363 yards.
Scouts from 15 NFL teams (including one general manager) attended the game, ooohing at Dotson's hands, his routes and his poise. One scout referred to the receiver as a late first-round pick, validating Dotson's decision to return to Penn State this season.
"I do think there's a difference in coming back when you're the receiver, or one of the receivers, across the country that everybody's talking about," Franklin said. "... I just felt like he had the opportunity to come in this year, with Sean coming back, with a lot of momentum, and take it to another level — go from an obvious draft choice to a high-round draft choice."
To do so, Dotson still had to continue reshaping himself. Physically, he's a much different player than the 150-pound freshman who started four games in 2018. He's 184 pounds, with a stronger lower body that Franklin and the strength staff urged him to build in order to play receiver in the Big Ten.
Dotson also is faster than ever, having run a personal-best 40-yard dash (4.33 seconds) during Penn State's offseason training. He committed himself to run such a time upon deciding to return. And he used that speed to outrun four Maryland defenders to the end zone.
"His work ethic is unmatched," Clifford said of Dotson.
Dotson gets that from his parents. Robin and Al Dotson moved their family from East Orange, N.J., to Nazareth, Pa., more than a decade ago, yet commuted daily back to New Jersey for work. The drives were a grind (still are) but became worth it with Dotson's success at Nazareth High.
Robin Dotson fights in other ways. She is undergoing cancer treatments for the second time, having been first diagnosed in 2019 and learning earlier this year that the cancer had returned.
Robin Dotson watched the first game in which her son scored a touchdown (two, actually, against Buffalo in 2019) from a hospital bed. Jahan often refers to her as his source of inspiration.
"The games are giving her life," Al Dotson told Big Ten Network for a recent episode of The Journey.
This is why Dotson grew emotional after the game, talking about his "biggest supporters."
"They've been sacrificing ever since I was a little kid, my parents, working multiple jobs, just making sure I'm in the best [place] to be successful in life," Dotson said.
"He’s the perfect representation of what we want to be at Penn State," Franklin added.
In addition to his parents, Dotson welcomed more than 20 family members and supporters to the game, some of whom traveled from Georgia and Florida, some who watched him play in person for the first time.
After the game, Dotson raced to the stands behind Penn State's bench, high-fiving those who made the trip, who helped him along the way to Saturday's milestone.
"I’m happy that, for the people who got to see me play for the first time, this was the one game they got to see," Dotson said. "It was fun. It was a fun night."