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Saquon & The Heisman: Positive Campaign, Negative Yards

by on October 29, 2017 9:30 PM

Not to be negative, but it is getting tougher and tougher for Saquon Barkley to gain positive yards as a running back.

Whether it’s an ineffective O-line or an RPO for which opponents have learned how to stop as SPO, Barkley the flashy RB is mostly MIA.

Barkley was at his apex as a running back in 2017 in the third quarter at Iowa.

In those 15 minutes in Kinnick Stadium alone, he carried the ball 10 times for 119 yards with runs of 16, 25, 44 and 8 (for a touchdown) on his way to a Penn State-record 358-all-purpose yard performance.

At that juncture of the season, Barkley had an 8.4-yard rushing average on 50 carries for 489 yards. Just 14 of his rushes had gone for a yard or less.

Since the fourth quarter in Iowa City, Barkley has been mostly a different back — save for one big run a game. More accurately, opposing defenses have caused him to be different.

Over the past 17 quarters, Barkley has run for 297 yards on 76 carries, a deceiving 3.9 yards per carry. Of that total, three runs — 53 yards vs. Northwestern, 69 vs. Michigan and 36 vs. Ohio State — account for 158 yards, which is 53% of his overall rushing yardage during that time. Three runs = half of all yards. Not a formula for success.

That means for his other 73 carries, he’s rushed for just 139 yards — a 1.9-yard average. And of those 73 carries, 32 were for a single yard or less (44% of all carries).

Saturday night, Barkley The Runner hit rock bottom. In the second half, he carried the ball 14 times for minus 3 yards. Seven of his last 10 carries were for negative yardage. When Penn State tried to run out the clock, it couldn’t. Not even with arguably the best player in college football.


Let’s stop right here and say it:

It is likely that Barkley will still win the Heisman. He is that brilliant. As of Sunday, the Westgate SportsBook in Vegas placed the odds at 4-7 that shortly before 9 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 9, at the New York Marriott Marquis in Times Square the Bronx native will be named the 80th recipient of the Heisman Memorial Trophy.

And, likely, he should.

After all, the award goes to the “outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity,” the Heisman Trust mission statement says. “The winners of the trophy epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance and hard work.”

That’s Barkley.

As are his two kickoff returns for touchdowns (98 yards vs. Indiana, 97 vs. Ohio State), third-most in the nation. And his 34.4 yard per kickoff return average, fourth in the country.

And his 206 all-purpose yards per game that lead all of major college football.

And his 14 touchdowns, fourth in the nation, and his 15 consecutive games with a TD, tops in the game. And his 14 total TDs, No. 4 in the country. And his touchdown pass, his pick-six saving tackle and a magnificent smile.

To say nothing — or to say everything, actually: “Saygone!” — of his leaps, his bounds, his twists and his turns all over the field. Or, as an all-purpose inherently decent young man and focused student, his good turns off the field in the classroom, on campus, with the media, with his teammates, and back home in the Lehigh Valley.

As it stands, or 525-pound squats, the 20-year-old Barkley and the Heisman Trophy, born in 1935, are a modern-day bromance.

The Penn State star is more than a running back, more than a returner, more than a receiver.

He’s a one-size does not fit all.

Barkley is a GIF, a Tweet, a Facebook share, a SportsCenter highlight. He is the archetype for the Social Media Heisman.

He is an enigma.


He is also a running back with head-scratching games in 2017 of 44, 47, 75 and 88 yards — as well as legendary keepers of 174 and 211. And stunning, highlight-reel running gains of 80, 69, 53, 44 and 36 yards (Saturday against Ohio State).

And yet, these days, he can’t buy a yard when Penn State needs it. Whiteout his 69-yard burst on his first carry against Michigan, and in the first 15 minutes of Penn State’s last four games — against Indiana, Northwestern, Michigan and Ohio State — he carried the ball 17 times for 40 yards. Hardly an hour of power.

Of course, you can’t take away the 69-yarder. That’s the point. That’s the essence and the joy of Barkley. He can bust one at any time. And he will, time and time again, for sure against Michigan State, Rutgers, Nebraska and Maryland.

Be assured of that. But the blueprint for stopping Barkley the back in blueblood and white, is there, as James Franklin has pointed out weak after weak. (Yes, pun intended.) Stopping No. 26 is Priority No. 1 for every single Nittany Lion opponent.

A big chunk of Barkley’s inability to gain many rushing yards these days — other than big chunks that he creates himself, the ultimate in millennial DIY  — may be due to the last vestiges of the NCAA sanctions.

When Franklin arrived in a not-so-Happy Valley in January 2014, there was a paucity of offensive line options, due to planning for limited scholarships and some misses on recruits.

That handicap is a big one, even with Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley, an under-appreciated and uber-valuable baller and gamer. And it continues to rear its ugly head in the most inopportune times — or, actually in the times with the greatest opportunity — like in the early evening darkness that was The Horseshoe. And the setting sun in the magnificent mountains of California that host the Rose Bowl.


That’s why Barkley is returning kickoffs, to give him more chances to get him the damn ball without two D-ends each grabbing one of those massive thigh-sized calves. It’s paid big dividends.

As he continues to make his run at the Heisman — and Penn State, now 7-1, makes a run at finishing the regular season 11-1 — the challenge is not only how to eliminate those negative rushes, but to look at ways to get him the ball with a chance to succeed.

And, as we’ve seen time and GIF again, that’s all he needs. A chance.

Against Iowa, Barkley had 42 touches — 17 runs for 211 yards, a career-high 12 receptions for 94 yards, and three kick returns for 53 yards. He followed that with 21 touches against Indiana, 18 against Northwestern, just 15 against Michigan and 27 on Saturday vs. Ohio State.

Twenty-one of those against the Buckeyes were runs. And other than his big 36-yard burst that went for a TD in the second quarter, Barkley’s other 20 carries netted eight yards. (Not a typo.)

Hardly the 7.6 yards per carry that Barry Sanders averaged on his 344 carries for 2,628 yards when he won the Heisman at Oklahoma State in 1988.

No one said Barkley was Barry Sanders. But three decades later, it is as close as we've gotten.

Darn close.

And with just two games left for Barkley in Beaver Stadium, what a run it has been — even the ones that don't gain a single inch.

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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