Saquon Barkley greeted teammate Brandon Polk with a grin, grabbing the wideout’s helmet with both hands before pulling him in for a hug. Seconds after Polk put Penn State up six scores, Barkley made his way back to the Nittany Lion sideline where he stayed until the end of the game, helmet in-hand.
Barkley’s night was finished with eight minutes left in the third quarter. A little more than a half was all he needed to make yet another case for the Heisman Trophy.
Barkley looked like the best back in the country in Saturday night’s 56-0 win over Georgia State, tallying 226 all-purpose yards and a magnificent 85-yard score. The Nittany Lions’ star tailback recorded 142 receiving yards on four catches, while contributing 47 rushing and 37 return yards.
All told, Barkley averaged 15.1 yards per touch.
“I can’t imagine that there’s a more explosive, dangerous player in space than him,” Penn State coach James Franklin said.
Barkley, when notified of Franklin’s high praise, took the compliment with a smile.
“If my coach is going to go out there and say that, then I have to agree with it,” the back said. “You have to have that confidence in yourself. ... I believe with the ball in my hands in space or the ball in my hands at all, that I can be one of the most dangerous players in college football.”
That confidence was clear from the start Saturday night. To guarantee he has the ball in space, Barkley fielded the game’s opening kickoff and almost housed it. The Coplay native rumbled and stumbled for a 37-yard gainer, tripped up by Georgia State placekicker Barry Brown.
Barkley was kept out of the end zone there, but found it on a Heisman-highlight-reel entry later in the first quarter.
Facing a third-and-12 on their own 15-yard line up 7-0, Barkley defied logic to extend the lead. Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley handled Connor McGovern’s snap and went through his reads as Barkley leaked out into the flat.
“It’s kind of weird,” Barkley said, reflecting on how the play came together. “He looked away from me first and I thought he was going downfield. But naturally, he turned around.”
McSorley saw Barkley alone at the 23-yard line and threw across his body to the playmaker. Barkley dashed to the Penn State 38-yard line, where it looked like he was boxed in. Two Georgia State defenders closed in as Barkley drifted toward the Panther sideline.
To get a better view, McSorley looked up at the Jumbotron and thought the back would be pushed out of bounds. He should’ve known better.
“Then he does what he does when he’s in the open field,” McSorley said, cracking a smile.
A shrewd stutter-step inside, then out, created enough separation between Barkley and the primary defender in pursuit. The beast burned cornerback Chandon Sullivan up the sideline, crossing the 50-yard line as he gradually pulled away from the pack.
The only person who could catch him was Polk, who pointed at his teammate as Barkley skated untouched into the end zone.
“He’s just got so many tools,” Franklin said. He showed them — speed, elusiveness, awareness, you name it — on that 85-yard receiving score.
All of it came natural to him, too. Sure, he’s worked his tail off for years, whether it was doing one-on-one drills in the offseason with linebackers Jason Cabinda and Manny Bowen or studying film of Le’Veon Bell, Dalvin Cook, Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey.
But there was an organic element to Barkley’s absurdity.
“I feel like when I’m moving, it’s something I’ve been doing since I was 8,” he said. “But as you can tell, it’s a little different at this level.”
Yeah, just a little.
Barkley wasn’t finished, either. He had a 44-yard catch in the second quarter and a 33-yard run in the third. Those plays and more caused fans to go bananas. Every time the ball was in his hands — even if it resulted in a 2-yard gain — there was a not-so-subtle roar of the crowd, anticipating what he might do.
And the cheers didn’t stop when the clock hit zero.
Held up by an on-field Big Ten Network interview, Barkley — who now has 635 all-purpose yards in three games — bolted through the Beaver Stadium’s south end zone tunnel in an attempt to catch up with his teammates.
En route, the back tossed his navy receiving gloves into the student section, eliciting screams matched only by The Rolling Stones.
Barkley played like the star he is on Saturday night, putting Heisman voters on further notice.