Saquon Barkley has three touchdown receptions this season, and they’ve all come on the same play.
The beloved wheel route.
It’s not called often — but when offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead does dial it up, everyone in the offensive huddle knows what’s coming.
“When that play is called, I get a little jittery and a little anxious,” Barkley said, “because I know that it could be a big play.”
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So, why does it work so well?
For starters, it’s set up beautifully.
All three of Barkley’s wheel route touchdowns — a 40-yarder at Pittsburgh, 44-yarder against Iowa, and a game-changing 18-yarder in the Big Ten Championship game — came in the second half. After at least two quarters of seeing the read-option, coupled with sending him out to the flat on swing passes, opposing defenses are accustomed to keying in on Barkley in a bubble close to the line of scrimmage.
That’s when Moorhead hits them with the devastating, looping route.
The second part to the wheel route formula is the advantageous look Penn State creates.
On all three occasions Barkley is matched up with a linebacker, and when Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley sees that, his eyes light up.
“Any time you see Saquon matched up one-on-one with a linebacker, even a corner, you gotta love that one-on-one matchup with the type of talent Saquon has,” McSorley said. “Just give him a chance. He’ll outrun a linebacker.”
On Barkley’s touchdown catches at Pitt and against Iowa, the Nittany Lions had two wide receivers split wide on the far side of the field, with tight end Mike Gesicki in close and wideout Chris Godwin facing single coverage on the near side.
When the ball was snapped, Gesicki went up the seam, Godwin cut inside, and Barkley ran to the space left unoccupied by Godwin.
As Barkley got a full-head of steam, Godwin rubbed the linebacker in coverage, making it even more difficult to get out and cover the running back.
On Barkley’s fourth-quarter touchdown against Wisconsin in Indianapolis, the look was slightly different. Gesicki lined up on the far side of the field, leaving Godwin as the only pass-catcher on the near side, and instead of cutting inside immediately, the wideout ran a skinny post.
But the concept was the same: identify man coverage and Barkley’s linebacker matchup in the pre-snap read, use Godwin to clear space for Barkley, and float the ball out there for the sophomore star.
The three linebackers tasked with manning up Barkley on those routes were Pitt’s Mike Caprara (225 pounds), Iowa’s Bo Bower (235 pounds) and Wisconsin’s T.J. Watt (243 pounds). Watt moves well for a linebacker, but neither he nor Caprara or Bower had a shot against Barkley.
It’s not an ideal situation as a linebacker to take your initial steps toward the line of scrimmage, only to have to turn-and-burn, chasing the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.
“If a linebacker is playing man coverage with me on that wheel route, and he comes underneath the route and it’s speed on speed, I don’t think anyone’s really capable of staying with me,” Barkley said. “I just need to lock-in and focus on making that catch.”
And that’s really the most difficult part of the play: making the catch. Whether it’s turning around to snare it or hauling it over-the-shoulder, it’s not a position running backs find themselves in often.
That’s why Barkley made it point of emphasis to work on his receiving ability in the offseason. He studied 2015 Heisman finalist and Stanford do-it-all back Christian McCaffrey, hoping to glean anything he could, and he worked with Penn State’s wideouts whenever he had the extra time.
“I don’t want to be a one-dimensional running back,” Barkley said. “I want to be different. I want to be able to catch. I want to be able to block, run you over, juke move, whatever, whatever. Just try to be a complete player for my team.”
Barkley’s definitely expanded his game this season, thanks in part to the wheel route.
If there was any question about that, just ask Watt, Caprara or Bower.