Despite declining stats, Barkley still leads PSU

UNIVERSITY PARK — It was midway through the second quarter Saturday, and Penn State’s running game was once again going nowhere.

With just one first down and 11 yards rushing in the first quarter, the Nittany Lions trailed their old Eastern cousin Rutgers, 6-0, and though the ultimate outcome was never in jeopardy, they were laying the foundation of an unimpressive victory.

And then Trace McSorley faked a handoff to Saquon Barkley.

Rutgers’ defense immediately converged on Barkley, and McSorley raced 20 yards up the middle, virtually untouched, for Penn State’s first touchdown in what would eventually became a 35-6 rout.

Such has been Barkley’s plight this season. After his 211 yards rushing against Iowa, the Lions’ star tailback was the leading contender for the Heisman Trophy.

But a not-so-funny thing has happened to him since.

Opponents have ganged up on him and forced the Lions to beat them in other ways.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt people have a plan for us based on Saquon’s alignment,” James Franklin said.

The result has reduced his statistics and all but derailed his Heisman chances.

Barkley’s teammates, of course, still think he’s worthy of the greatest individual honor in sports.

“We got the best running back in all of football,” tight end Mike Gesicki said. “The award is supposed to go to the best player in college football. Saquon is the best player in college football. It’s plain and simple. If the Heisman is supposed to give to the best player in college football, give the man the trophy.”

Credit Gesicki for his loyalty, but for as many highlight-reel plays as Barkley turned in last year and early this season, the stats lately tell a very different story.

Though Barkley scored two touchdowns Saturday, his rushing total of 35 yards on 14 carries were a season-low. It marked his third-straight game sub-100-yard game and his fifth in six games.

He’s averaging 89 yards rushing in 10 games and has been held to fewer than 100 in seven of them.

“It’s part of the game,” Barkley said. “I just keep going to our O-lineman and saying, ‘It’s all right, throw a jab, throw a jab and when they get lazy, hit them with a haymaker.”’

Barkley likes to use boxing references. His great uncle, Iran Barkley, was a great middleweight who beat Thomas Hearns twice and lost a split decision to Roberto Duran.

“The running game is like a boxing match,” he said. “I have to be patient.”

Penn State has been blessed with great backs over the years. Lenny Moore. Curt Warner. Ki-Jana Carter. Larry Johnson. John Cappelletti. Curtis Enis. Franco Harris. And on and on.

We’ve seen enough of Barkley to know his skill set puts him in that class if not at the top of it.

He’s shown a rare combination of speed and power to go with the ability to catch the ball, return kickoffs and, especially this year, be a willing and effective pass blocker.

“A lot of teams are trying to take away the run,” he said. “When we can take advantage of the pass, we’ll do it. (Pass blocking) is something I’ve enjoyed doing. My freshman year I was awful. This year I feel more comfortable understanding the blitzes and where they come from.”

For whatever reason — injuries to the offensive line, lack of development on the line, predictability or the offensive scheme — Barkley’s greatness has been neutralized.

The same guy who was running all over the Rose Bowl and tearing through Iowa for 211 yards barely can breathe anymore without four defenders pouncing on him.

“We have to be able to run the ball more consistently,” Franklin said, repeating what he’s been saying with no apparent remedy on the horizon.

As impressive as Barkley’s explosiveness is when he can be freed in the open field is the manner in which he’s handled what has turned out to be a disappointing season for him personally.

“The way he’s carried himself, you’d think he has 250 yards every game,” Gesicki said. “Most impressive about him is the attitude he’s had.”

Yes, the Lions are 8-2, but the storyline lately has become as much what Barkley hasn’t done as what he has.

And yet Barkley comes out after every game to face the media horde that cover Penn State, and he says the right things every single time.

“Obviously, defenses are trying to take away our backs and myself,” he said. “It’s a team sport. I just try to trust the system, trust the scheme, be a leader and make a play when I can.”

Barkley is likely down to just a few more plays during his Penn State career. Saturday against Nebraska marks the season’s final home game, and Barkley almost certainly will forgo his final year of eligibility, meaning he has one home game left.

True to form, he deflected the subject Saturday.

“That’s really not on my mind,” he said. “When that time comes, at the end of the year, I’ll sit down and talk to my family. I’m not focused on that at all. We’ve still got games left here, and when you start looking beyond, you start messing up and not being who you really are. When I get to that point, that’s when it will cross my mind.”

Asked whether he would play in a bowl game — top picks Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey bypassed their postseason games last year — Barkley stiff-armed that subject, too.

“That’s not even something I’m going to talk about,” he said. “I’m aware of decisions made in the past. We were in different situations, different teams, different players.”

He brought the topic back around to “controlling what you can control” and finishing strong.

“Obviously, you have goals, and you envision what you want to do,” he said. “I visualized going undefeated. We’re 8-2, and we hold ourselves such a high standard that everyone thinks it’s been a bad year. That’s a good thing — that we hold ourselves to such a high standard.”

He has done his share to maintain and raise that standard, and however many games he has left, Saquon Barkley will be remembered on a very short list of Penn State’s all-time greats — for how he played when he had room to run and how he kept his chin up when he didn’t.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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