Saquon Barkley finished up an on-field interview with ESPN, fixed the Nike headband wrapped around his temple, turned and spotted his coach in a navy visor approaching him.
Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead cracked a smile and hugged his star player.
Moorhead, the mind behind Penn State’s offense, had every reason to be proud of Barkley. The back battled through an opening half that’d frustrate even the most even-keeled player.
“You can’t panic,” Barkley said. And he didn’t.
Barkley recorded only 22 yards on five carries in the first half of Saturday’s 33-14 win over Pittsburgh, but he made up for it. The Heisman Trophy contender finished with 183 all-purpose yards — 88 rushing, 45 receiving and 50 returning — to average 9.2 yards per touch and had a pair of scores (one receiving, one rushing) in the 10th multi-touchdown game of his career.
Penn State head coach James Franklin wasn’t concerned with Barkley’s lack of involvement in the first half, with reason.
“Our offense and our gameplan in this RPO system is to take what the defense gives. They were using a lot of interior pressures, trying to take our running game and inside zone package in between the tackles away,” Franklin said. “If Saquon’s going to have opportunities for big plays, he’s going to get them.”
Barkley took full advantage of his first true chance.
Early in the third quarter, with the Nittany Lions leading 14-3, Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley identified one-on-one coverage on Barkley. The dangerous back was matched up with a linebacker.
Barkley and McSorley’s eyes widened.
“That was something we’ve had all week in practice,” McSorley said. “We liked him getting matched up one-on-one. We tried to take advantage of it.”
Added Barkley: “It’s a play that worked a lot in 7-on-7s. ... You believe that Trace is going to put the ball on the money, and he believes I’m going to catch it and find a way to get in the end zone.”
From the Pitt 46-yard line, Barkley ran straight between center Connor McGovern and right guard Brendan Mahon and pulled an out-and-in move on Pitt linebacker Saleem Brightwell. The back broke right, cut back left and was free within a second.
Streaming down the middle of the field, Barkley was hit in stride by McSorley at the Pitt 29, and he did the rest — gliding into the south end zone untouched.
Barkley said he was thinking touchdown when the ball was in the air.
“That’s the kind of mindset you have to have,” Barkley said with a smile. “You have to believe in yourself. I thought it was a touchdown as soon as I saw the one-on-one.”
After he and McSorley capitalized on that man-to-man look, Barkley celebrated with tight end Mike Gesicki and motioned toward the crazed student section.
The north end zone fans needn’t worry, though. Barkley was coming their way soon enough.
Barkley put Penn State up 28-6 on the first play of the fourth quarter. From eight yards out, the back lowered his shoulder through Mahon and Pitt’s defensive tackle, then dragged Panthers safety Dennis Briggs into the end zone with him.
Barkley demonstrated power after exhibiting speed, putting on a show in the second half after a dormant first couple quarters.
Even though some were concerned with Barkley’s light first-half workload, his teammate wasn’t.
Senior tackle Andrew Nelson — after blocking for Barkley for three seasons now — has learned to never underestimate the multi-purpose threat.
“It isn’t, ‘Maybe Saquon is having an off day. Maybe he’s just not going to make plays today.’ You never think that,” Nelson said. “You know, at some point, this kid is going to make a huge play. Whether it’s the first quarter, second quarter, first half, second half, whatever, he’s going to.”
The Heisman candidate proved that again on Saturday.