Barkley sets TD record in possibly final game at Beaver Stadium
UNIVERSITY PARK — Solomon Enis came all the way from Arizona to Penn State for an official visit this weekend, and, at the beginning of Saturday’s game, he received a fine how-do-you-do.
On the third play from scrimmage, Saquon Barkley took a handoff around the left side, slipping one tackle and got to the sideline. From there, it was a race to the end zone, and Juwan Johnson’s sustained block downfield ensured it was one Barkley was going to win.
One run. Sixty-five yards. And, just like that, Enis’ dad, Curtis, was all alone in third place on the Nittany Lions’ all-time rushing touchdown chart.
By the time the 106,722 in attendance began filing out — rather early because Penn State crushed Nebraska, 56-44 — Barkley had tacked on two more TDs, supplanting the total of 38 of Lydell Mitchell that had stood for 46 years. He also joined Evan Royster as the only Lion with three 1,000-yard rushing campaigns and reached 2,000 all-purpose yards this season.
If this was indeed the final game at Beaver Stadium for the junior from Coplay who is ticketed to be a high first-round pick if he declares for the NFL draft, he left Lion fans with quite a performance to remember, one that exemplified extraordinary ability on the field and his extraordinary character as a teammate.
“If this was my last game at Beaver Stadium, would this be a satisfying way to go out? I would say yes,” Barkley said.
Barkley had more than 200 yards from scrimmage in the first half alone, by which the Nittany Lions had assumed a commanding 42-10 lead. His explosives was on display on the first scoring run, and, while he didn’t get to do his trademark high hurdle of a defender during this contest, he did do a backflip into the end zone — unfortunately, the officials, upon further review, ruled him out at the 1, from which he then took it in.
His final TD came on a powerful 8-yard gash with 4:36 left in the first half, his 39th rushing touchdown with the Nittany Lions.
Barkley finished with 158 yards rushing — he also had a 30-yard run — to go with six receptions for 66 yards. He called it a day pretty early, only touching the ball four times in the second half.
“I’m really proud of him,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “Blessed to have coached him.”
Reporters picked up on Franklin’s use of the past tense. It’s generally acknowledged that Barkley, with little left to accomplish in college football, will forego his final year of eligibility and declare for the NFL draft. Franklin said he spoke with Barkley about that possibility before the season, and, while he wouldn’t discuss specifics of that discussion, it was easy to read in that Franklin’s advice would be to take his talents to the next level.
“If IBM came to our computer engineering department and offered a junior a $12 million contract,” Franklin said, “they’d be gone.”
For his part, Barkley wasn’t tipping his hand despite a throng of reporters who waited for 20 minutes for him to join the press conference after the game to prod him about what he might do.
“Really, to be honest, I’m not really focusing on the future right now,” Barkley said.
Penn State fans, though, learned that they will get at least two more games of perhaps as electrifying a player as has ever donned Lion blue and white — the regular season finale at Maryland and the Lions’ bowl game. Last season, LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey both skipped their teams’ bowl games, not risking injury before being drafted.
Penn State fans have been wondering if Barkley might follow that trend, since it seems unlikely the Lions will make the four-team national championship playoff.
Barkley said he understood those players’ decisions and was very careful to say he didn’t disagree with what they did. He also went to great lengths to make it clear he planned to play in the bowl game.
“I’m different from Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey and all those other guys. Our situations are different,” Barkley said, citing that he was healthy and other players needed to be careful not to have their draft status impacted by potential injuries when they needed to provide for their families. “I’m ready to play. It’s important to me because I love football, God’s blessed me with another opportunity to play the sport I love, and, to be really honest, because of my teammates.”
While many of the questions surrounded him and his future, Barkley, as deftly as he changed directions to dodge defenders throughout his playing career, turned the attention back on others.
“I’m excited that we sent the seniors out on a great note with a win,” Barkley said. “We wouldn’t be a program without those guys, Mike (Gesicki), Nelly (Andrew Nelson), Hammy (DaeSean Hamilton), Marcus Allen, all those guys. I’m so happy I got to play with those guys.”
Barkley did savor setting the touchdown record and joining place-kicker Kevin Kelly as the only Lion with two 100-point seasons … for a few seconds.
“That sounds awesome, to be able to break that rushing record, especially with a guy like Lydell Mitchell. He’s outstanding and in the College Football Hall of Fame. To even be mentioned in the same category is something special,” Barkley said. “But all those touchdowns, it wasn’t only me. That’s a group thing.”
One has to wonder if not just the allure of the pro ranks, but the fact that so many of his best friends and the players whose careers have been identified with Barkley’s might also play a part in the decision. Twenty-three seniors came out for their final home game as Nittany Lions on Saturday.
That group, along with Barkley, only lost once in three years in Beaver Stadium, something the 5-foot-11, 230-pound running back said was among the accomplishments of which he was most proud. Barkley remarked more than once that he was disappointed that he was injured and didn’t get to finish out last year’s senior day game.
He didn’t finish this time, but only because he performed so brilliantly that he wasn’t needed to. Whether it was for the final time or not, Barkley admitted it was an emotional weekend.
“Coach Franklin said something about the seniors and basically talked to the freshmen and saying, ‘It’s going to come quick.’ And I had a flashback to my freshman year,” Barkley said. “Three years and three football seasons, it went by so fast.”
Just like Barkley on that 65-yard run.