Penn State's offense is an interesting case study in staying the course, and where that gets you.
Take Saturday's win over Northwestern for example. Penn State continued to struggle to run the ball between the tackles and in turn the Nittany Lions relied on an effective passing attack to move meaningful yards down the field. At one point Saquon Barkley had a rushing touchdown to his name but no rushing yards.
It is true that Barkley's presence on the field is an asset even when he isn't getting the ball. Northwestern, much like Indiana, wasn't going to let Barkley beat them so both teams were content to crash down and make him earn those yards the old fashion way. With Penn State's offensive line struggling to win at the point of attack the Wildcats managed 12 tackles for a loss.
The result is something of a philosophical crossroads when it comes to Barkley's usage in Penn State's offense. The read-pass-option attack is fluid and changing, the result of any given play is the outcome of a series of predetermined reads. Penn State isn't a team that is going to call a play no matter how the defense lines up. That's not how it works.
But should it?
In reality, no. It's unreasonable and asinine to assume Penn State can effectively operate two different styles of offense, but the Nittany Lions' win over Northwestern was an example of how relatively easy it has become for a determined defense to gum up the works with Barkley.
"Beat us with the pass."
And Penn State has obliged.
Even if Penn State can't flip the switch between styles of offense, it seems reasonable to think the Nittany Lions can find a way to more purposefully get Barkley his receptions. If one assumes Penn State's offensive line doesn't drastically improve over the bye and Michigan and Ohio State's defenses don't drastically fall off, it seems that Northwestern and Indiana have given those teams a blueprint that Penn State will have trouble with.
"I think we have enough things in the offense to get him the ball that, it’s just naturally going to happen," James Franklin said of Barkley after the win. "We’re not really in a situation where we have calls where we’re handing the ball off to him no matter what. It’s RPO. We’re reading those things. I do think we have some stuff that we have saved for the second half of the year that we haven’t showed a whole lot that I think will help us.
Joe Moorhead undoubtedly agrees with that assessment more than this one (hello Joe), and with another game of 30-plus points, it's hard to argue with the results.
But consider this. In his career, Barkley has had seven games in which he has caught three or more passes. In those games he averages 63.7 yards per game and 12.38 yards a catch.
On Saturday he caught two passes, one a shovel pass.
This season Barkley has been exceptionally effective in the pass game. He has 29 catches on 32 targets for an average of 13.6 yards a catch and 1.33 targets a quarter.
Take out the Iowa game, a 13 target, 12 catch clinic, and Barkley is averaging 0.95 targets a quarter in the five other games.
That's four a game, and maybe that's enough. But as the competition gets tougher and tough, if Barkley can't get his yards on the ground, four catches a game might not be enough.
And while the Nittany Lions can't change their offense, and shouldn't, finding more purposeful ways to get Barkley in space might go a long way.
If for no other reason than he's too good to be relegated to an effective distraction and if he can't run it, this is the next best option.