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With Saquon Barkley, It's How He Carries Himself. And The Rush He Provides

by on November 09, 2017 10:00 PM

The Heisman Mission Statement:

“The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. The winners of the trophy epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work. The Heisman Trophy Trust's mission is to ensure the continuation and integrity of this award.”

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Seventeen games in Beaver Stadium. Two to go.

Saturday against Rutgers will likely be the penultimate home game in Saquon Barkley’s soon-to-be legendary career.

Then, a week later — after the Nittany Lions host Nebraska on Nov. 18 — No. 26’s days in front of #107k will be forever behind him.

But not forgotten.

Especially SaSportsCenter Saquon, the Barkley of old. (Never mind that he’s all of 20 years and 8 months.)

It’s just that lately, he hasn’t provided that many rushes.

Over Penn State’s last five contests of 2017, the Penn State junior running back has averaged just 69 yards rushing per game. And over Penn State’s last six games at home, he has not fared much better; dating back to Penn State’s 45-12 win over Michigan State in 2016, he has averaged a bit more, at 81.1 yards per game.

On Saturday, he could surpass those averages in a single quarter, if not a single carry. He just might. (Rutgers’ defense is porous against the run, yielding 6 yards per run over the past three games.)

Saquon is more than the carries; it’s how he carries himself. And he’s more than the rushes. It's the rush he provides.

RUN FOR THE MONEY

Rutgers on Sept. 12, 2015, was Barkley's second game in Beaver Stadium. He ran for 195 yards and two touchdowns. And now, 791 days later this Saturday, Rutgers will likely be his second-last.

It’s almost a foregone conclusion that at the end of the season — be it before or after a bowl game — that Barkley, who is in his third year of college, will announce he is leaving for the NFL.

Thursday night, in a veiled sort of way, his head coach gave him his blessing.

“You can’t always tell them to come back to school,” James Franklin said on his radio show on Thursday night, talking generally about college football players leaving school early. “And I’m different than a lot of football coaches. If a guy is going to be a guaranteed first-round draft choice, he’s got to consider it.

“I find it funny,” Franklin continued, ”when people criticize a football player for leaving school early to go to the NFL and he’s a guaranteed first-round draft choice. That is life-changing money. I can tell you now if IBM came to our computer engineering department and offered a computer engineering major a $12 million contract as a junior, they’d be gone. So don’t criticize my guys when they make the same decision.

Barkley can expect a lot more than $12 million.

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As the No. 4 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft and the first running back selected, LSU’s Leonard Fournette signed a $27 million contract with the Jacksonville jaguars, with a $17.9 million signing bonus. As the No. 1 overall pick in that draft, Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett signed with the Cleveland Browns for $30 million, with a $20 million signing bonus. See all the first-round numbers here, from spotrac.com.

No matter how you look at it, Barkley is money. And, for the most part, has been since he arrived at Penn State.

He has averaged 100.76 yards rushing per game over his 17 contests in front of a home crowd. (He missed a pair of home games as a freshman with an injury.) And during that time, with Barkley in the backfield, the Nittany Lions are 16-1 in Beaver Stadium. The Kid has lost once in Beaver Stadium. Once.

That’s with Christian Hackenberg at quarterback, in a pro-style offense populated with jet sweeps and bubble screens, and with John Donovan calling the plays. And that’s with Trace McSorley at quarterback, in an RPO offense that has been way up and recently down, with Joe Moorhead calling the plays.

At home against Maryland (202 yards, 2016), Rutgers (195, 2015), Akron (174, 2017) and Iowa (167, 2016).

And at home against Michigan State (14, 2016) and Georgia State (47, 2017).

Throw in five TD receptions at home in three seasons — as well as a four-catch, 142-yard receiving performance against Georgia State — and an electrifying 98-yard kickoff return against Indiana this season, and…well…he is something to Crowe about in The Beav.

Always, with Barkley, are you not entertained?

A BIT NEGATIVE, BUT NOT MEL

But we have also learned this about Barkley: Even when he is down, he is not out.

And too much lately, he has been down behind the line of scrimmage. Over his last 90 carries, dating back to the fourth quarter of the Iowa game, when the Hawkeyes seemingly cracked the code, Barkley has lost yardage on 23 of those 90 carries. Seven more were for no gain.

Late in games, late in series, opposing defenses have especially focused on Barkley with such a force that Moorhead has been forced to play his other hands.

Here’s how Barkley himself explained it after Penn State’s 27-24 last-second loss at Michigan State, after rushing for 63 yards on 14 carries, including six carries for zero yards and two catches for 13 yards in the first 30 minutes:

“We’re an offense that if you’re trying to play checkers, we want the last piece,” Barkley said. “You take away one thing, we have another thing to go to. It’s football. I’ve had a lot of success with the ball in my hands in space and a lot of people are trying to take that away. If I run a swing, I see people follow me on that. The defense is trying to do different and obviously take the ball out of my hands. They’re double-teaming or over-playing me and trying to stop me from catching the ball or getting the ball out of the backfield. It’s opened up other situations, it’s opened it up for other people.”

In 2017, just 17 of Barkley’s 152 carries have come on third down. He’s averaged only 1.47 yards on those carries, with one TD and four first downs, according to cfbstats.com. (The rest: 92 carries on first down, 41 on second two in the fourth.)

In nine fourth quarters in 2017, counting blowouts and nail-biters, Barkley has carried the ball 28 times for 72 yards, a 2.57-yard average, with just one touchdown and four first downs, according to cfbstats.com. (The rest: 37 carries in the first quarter, 39 in the second and 48 in the third; that’s 76 in each half.) See a full breakdown here.

Hardly the crunch-time big stats that one would expect from Mel Kiper’s top player in college football. As recently as Thursday morning, Barkley was No. 1 on Mel’s Big Board. He’s what Kiper had to say about Barkley:

“After back-to-back underwhelming games on the stat sheet, Barkley is no longer the Heisman favorite. But that doesn't affect his NFL prospects. He is a lights-out athlete who shows tremendous balance with a great lower body and quick feet. He rushed for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns last season and had 1,076 yards as a freshman. He has 1,368 yards from scrimmage and 14 total touchdowns this season. Barkley (5-foot-11, 230 pounds) also will help in the passing game; he has 39 catches this season after having 48 in his first two seasons at Penn State. I think he'll run under a 4.4 40-yard dash and test well at the combine. Barkley could be a top-five pick in 2018, and he's going to get an elite grade from me, barring injury.”

WAIT, THERE’S MORE

As Paul Harvey would have said, here’s the rest of the story:

Barkley is ending his run in first-class fashion. He’s not pouting. Or moping.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what his teammates had to say about Barkley this week:

Saaed Blacknall: “Saquon’s head is always in the place. I don’t think there are too many things that knock him off his game, that bother him.”

DeAndre Thompkins: “He’s one of those guys that he understands the game of football. He knows that you’re not going to have a breakout game every game. He knows that the type of player he is, teams are going to set out to stop him. And one thing that I admire from him is he’s a team player, he’s not one of the those guys that goes and demands the ball. He knows the type of players we are as receivers. He knows the type of player Mike (Gesicki) is at tight end, he knows Trace (McSorley) and etc. But that’s one thing that he handles very well. He knows he’s not the only piece to the puzzle and he’s willing to sacrifice that for the success of the team.”

In other words, Barkley is not the kind of player to plant a flag at may….er, midfield.

Or ask for the ball.

Barkley gets that he’s often an uber-talented decoy, even though it means he has to often duck for cover shortly after McSorley hands him the ball. (And, sometimes, while still giving him the ball.)

NO BITE FROM BARKLEY

Barkley didn’t zeke out two weeks ago against Ohio State, even after he carried the ball 21 times for just 44 yards, as Penn State’s offense looked like the (No)RPO.

Here’s what the Buckeyes’ Ezekial Elliott said in the same stadium at about the same time of the season in the same kind of circumstance near the end of his junior season, when he had 12 rushes for 33 yards in Ohio State’s loss to Michigan in The Horseshoe in 2015:

“There’s no chance of me coming back next year,” Elliott said after the game. “What happened today, it was kind of like a bad, bad dream. Offense had a rough day, and I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed in the play-calling, I’m disappointed in the situations we were put in, and I wish it all played out differently.”

You almost couldn’t blame Barkley if he had said that. But instead, last Saturday, Barkley said, “It’s not really frustrating, because you have to trust the process and trust the system and trust the offensive line. You try to take one part of the game away, it opens another one.”

Then, a few seconds later, he added:

“We need to find a way to make plays, starting with me.”

Barkley’s last home run begins at noon on Saturday. Likely, his start will be quite a finish.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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