Saquon Barkley is no longer the Heisman Trophy front-runner, and it’s not his fault.
Barkley has fallen behind in the race for the bronze statue in recent weeks, Saturday included, because he’s been bottled up — and it’s on the guys in front of him who have failed to open up holes. Plain and simple.
“It’s not a Saquon issue,” head coach James Franklin said, when asked why Barkley struggled. “It’s a team issue.”
Barkley managed 63 yards on 14 carries against Michigan State. Take out a 36-yard gain and the junior phenom averaged 2.1 per carry.
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In the last five games, Barkley’s averaging 69.2 rushing yards per contest and 4.0 yards per carry. In the same span, he’s been stopped for a negative gain 22 times (25.6 percent of carries).
And this is happening to the best running back in the country. Who knows how bad it’d be if anyone but Barkley was taking handoffs?
This lingering offensive line issue was easy to mask early in the season against inferior opponents. But the past two showings have especially brought that to light. Penn State fell to Michigan State and Ohio State in consecutive weeks because the Nittany Lions have been soft in the trenches.
If Penn State had even a semi-reliable running game, it would’ve won at The Horseshoe and could’ve put Sparty away in abysmal weather Saturday.
It’s a primary reason why Penn State is 7-2 and not 9-0, why the Nittany Lions are out of the College Football Playoff conversation and why Barkley might not win the Heisman.
“We haven’t been running the ball consistently this year,” Franklin said. “If we have to go back to the old inside drill and just do that every day at practice, we’ll get it corrected. We’re going to become more of a hard-nosed team up front. ... We’re not right now. We’re too finesse.”
▪ There have been countless complaints thrown Franklin’s way about going for it on fourth-and-3 at Michigan State’s 31-yard line with 4:05 to go in a 24-24 game. The Nittany Lions failed to convert, so all the Captain Hindsights came out in full-force.
Still, it’s the right call.
The two other options in that spot were, one, try a 48-yard field goal and, two, punt.
Tyler Davis hit a 47-yarder against Akron, but the conditions at Spartan Stadium were far worse than those at Beaver Stadium on Sept. 2.
And remember how well Michigan State was moving the ball? A series before, the Spartans were driving and would’ve taken the lead if not for a tipped pass picked off by Amani Oruwariye. “If we make the field goal, they’d still have plenty of time to go down and match us,” Franklin added.
On a punt, if Blake Gillikin kicks a touchback, the difference is an inconsequential 11 yards. If he pins it inside the 10-yard line, Sparty still has four minutes to move down the field, and the Nittany Lions weren’t going to stop Brian Lewerke.
Penn State needed a first down — and almost got it as Trace McSorley’s pass fell through the hands of DeAndre Thompkins.
“I think we had the first down, but we didn’t finish the play,” Franklin said. “I know it’ll probably be second-guessed, but I’m comfortable with the decision.”
▪ DaeSean Hamilton recorded his third 100-yard receiving game of 2017, racking up 112 yards on seven catches. With the notable performance, Hamilton pushed his season total to 606 through nine games — already passing his totals from 2015 (580) and 2016 (506).
Hamilton was involved from the get-go. His 82 receiving yards on four catches in the first quarter was proof of that. A 31-yard touchdown reception was Penn State’s opening score, sparking the offense.
Hamilton might still be an overlooked piece of the offense — but he shouldn’t be.
▪ Both teams played in Saturday’s sloppy conditions — but Penn State’s passing attack was noticeably affected.
Thompkins was the beneficiary on his 71-yard touchdown reception as Michigan State cornerback Josiah Scott slipped, but the soggy field otherwise slowed Penn State down. The Nittany Lions managed only 14 “explosive plays” — runs of 12 or more yards and completions of 15 or more yards.
“I think we’re a fast team, and I think we play a fast style on offense,” Franklin said. “I think it took us a bit to get our feet under us, about a quarter or so. Then we didn’t have the explosive plays, the shots, that we normally do.”
McSorley’s second interception was a result of the weather, too. Thompkins lost his footing due to the Spartan Stadium surface — as well as a missed defensive pass interference — allowing Michigan State’s David Dowell to pick it off.
Added Franklin: “They played in the same conditions we did, and they handled it better than we did at the end of the day.”
▪ A lack of pass rush (get to that in a bit) made it difficult on Penn State’s secondary, but senior cornerbacks Grant Haley and Christian Campbell will want to forget Saturday.
Felton Davis was a thorn in Penn State’s side with 12 catches for 181 yards. Thirty-three of those yards came on a second-quarter, play-action touchdown where he burned Campbell on a double-move.
Together, Campbell and Haley had just one pass breakup. Meanwhile, Oruwariye and true freshman Tariq Castro-Fields — who saw two straight defensive series in the second half as the seniors were seemingly benched — tallied seven breakups.
▪ For the second week in a row, Penn State couldn’t generate a pass rush.
It burned the Nittany Lions in Columbus as J.T. Barrett had time to pick apart the secondary en route to a 39-38 comeback win. On Saturday, it plagued them as Lewerke diced ’em for 400 yards.
All day long Penn State blitzed Michigan State, and all the Nittany Lions had to show for it was two sacks and seven hurries on 56 passing attempts. No matter what defensive coordinator Brent Pry dialed up, it either took too long to develop or was blocked well.
“We’re not getting to the quarterback enough,” Franklin said. “We rush four, and we’re not getting there. We rush five, we’re not getting there. We rush six, we’re not getting there. We’re not getting to the quarterback consistently enough. Can we cover better? Yes. But I’ll tell you, the best thing for coverage is pressuring and sacking the quarterback.
“That’s part of our issue.”
It was frustrating the players, too. That was obvious on Marcus Allen’s roughing the passer penalty that extended Michigan State’s game-clinching drive.
With less than a minute to go, the senior safety clocked Lewerke way late. Allen’s mistake cost Penn State 15 yards and ultimately a chance to get the ball back. But, at the end of the day, he was trying to get to the quarterback. Like his teammates all afternoon, Allen was just late.
As a unit, Penn State’s defense failed to apply pressure. It’s cost the Nittany Lions twice in as many weeks.