For 165 days, Saquon Barkley was committed to Rutgers.
Of course, Barkley isn’t a Scarlet Knight. After Penn State offered him a scholarship, he accepted and became an integral part of the Class of 2015.
But what if Barkley stayed committed to Rutgers? We asked two of our resident experts, Penn State football writer John McGonigal and sports editor Josh Moyer, what their thoughts were on that alternate universe.
Check out what they had to say:
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Well for starters, college football fans wouldn’t have that 79-yard touchdown run at the Rose Bowl to fawn over. Even while writing this, I find myself Google searching, “Saquon Barkley Rose Bowl run,” and it doesn’t really get old. No matter who’s playing, making an entire defense look silly with jump cuts and breakaway speed is something you want to watch again and again.
That play and many others by the junior running back have helped mold Penn State football into what it is today. Barkley’s role in the Nittany Lions’ re-emergence can’t be overstated. While the Heisman contender would be quick to give plenty of credit to his blockers, he tallied 1,496 rushing yards, 402 receiving yards and 22 touchdowns in Penn State’s surprising 2016 campaign. While quarterback Trace McSorley keyed the offense, especially down the stretch, it was Barkley’s dynamic skill that forced defenses to stack the box. Michigan State, Wisconsin and every other team the Nittany Lions faced had to respect Barkley’s ability to burn them.
Now — with or without Barkley — there’s little doubt in my mind that Joe Moorhead’s offense succeeds last season. His scheme is tailor-made for a quarterback like McSorley, and Penn State has talent behind Barkley. But do the Nittany Lions reach the Rose Bowl? Probably not. It’s tough dealing in hypotheticals — but if Barkley is at Rutgers, it’s hard to see Penn State winning 11 games in 2016. His 25-yard burst in overtime iced a comeback win against Minnesota. His 211 all-purpose yards in Penn State’s victory over Iowa was a dominating performance. And Barkley’s wheel route touchdown to grab the lead in the Big Ten title game was a play not many running backs make.
In Rutgers’ case, the Scarlet Knights are obviously better with Barkley. But how much can one guy carry a team? Assuming Barkley separated himself in Kyle Flood’s rotational backfield — in 2015, Rutgers had three ballcarriers with 99 attempts or more — it still would’ve been a challenge dragging a team that won six combined games in 2015 and 2016 out of the depths of the Big Ten. As for Penn State, Akeel Lynch might’ve decided not to transfer following the 2015 season. Andre Robinson or Miles Sanders would be the starter heading into 2017. And the Nittany Lions likely wouldn’t be defending Big Ten champions.
But Barkley chose the Nittany Lions over Rutgers, and Penn State is where it is.
First off, let’s talk about what would have changed for Barkley. Rutgers was — and is — a dumpster fire of a college football program, and there’s no way his freshman campaign would’ve been filled with highlights and national praise. He would be no less talented on the Scarlet Knights but, in 2015, Rutgers utilized a running back rotation that never took into account the hot hand. Barkley wouldn’t have had the opportunity he had in Happy Valley.
Even just to get on the field, Barkley would’ve had to move past Paul James, Robert Martin, Josh Hicks and Justin Goodwin. Those were four solid backs. What are the odds a freshman, who arrived on campus over the summer, would’ve sky-rocketed up the depth chart in a matter of three months? Or, even if he did, that he would’ve completely changed the way the offense was run? During one game, James rushed for an impressive 72-yard gain, rushed for two yards on the next play — and then never carried the ball again. Why? “That was actually a function of the rotation,” interim coach Norries Wilson told NJ.com. Barkley could’ve been the nation’s most talented back but, on Rutgers in 2015, no one would’ve known it.
Last season, even if Barkley would’ve won the starting job (and let’s assume he does in this alternate universe), Rutgers’ offensive line was still statistically worse than anything the Nittany Lions fielded post-sanctions. (RU allowed 7.75 tackles for loss per game; in 2014, Penn State allowed 7.54.) Barkley could’ve called upon the powers of Red Grange, Barry Sanders and Jim Brown, and he still couldn’t have gotten the Scarlet Knights to the Motor City Bowl. Their average loss came by more than 30 points. So where would Barkley be now? He’d be renowned around the Big Ten, sure, maybe like Northwestern’s Justin Jackson. But I wouldn’t expect any cameos on ESPN’s Sport Science. He’d be an all-conference talent, but he wouldn’t be in the Heisman conversation.
It starts getting interesting when you look at his impact on Penn State. No way do the Nittany Lions have a winning record in 2015 without him; he opened the passing game up to new heights when offenses realized his ability. Remember Christian Hackenberg’s stat line in the Maryland game? 13 of 29 for 315 yards and three touchdowns. Maybe PSU even misses out on a bowl in 2015. Last year, I don’t think there’s any question the Nittany Lions miss out on the Big Ten title. In fact, James Franklin might have already been run out of town. Without Barkley, does that Minnesota win happen? Does the victory against Ohio State come about? Without those, where does the season stand?
I’m not speaking in hyperbole here: If Barkley committed to Rutgers, that might have set Penn State back two full years. He’s one of the program’s most important players. But it greatly benefited both him and Penn State that he decided to change his commitment.