Saquon Barkley walked slowly under the tunnel Saturday afternoon, off the field and into a swarm of unending questions about his frustration.
In a seven-minute period during the postgame media scrum, Barkley was asked three times how his frustration must be growing. He rushed for 44 yards against Ohio State, 63 yards versus Michigan State and then 35 yards against Rutgers.
It’s the worst three-game stretch, statistically, of his college career. He has averaged 2.9 yards per carry during that span — while Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins has averaged 7.1 and even Rutgers’ Gus Edwards has a little over 4.0. He was reminded of that repeatedly.
“It’s part of the game,” the soft-spoken Barkley said. “I just try to take it one play at a time and trust the system, trust the scheme, and when you get an opportunity, you got to make the play.”
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One reporter pointed out how Barkley looked frustrated, but he appeared more annoyed with the questions than he did with his performance. The Nittany Lions won 35-6, and they’re still on their way to a 10-win season — something Barkley said he took pride in.
Still, this isn’t the season the Pennsylvania product envisioned. He admitted that much. Three weeks ago, it was difficult to anticipate the star junior’s numbers falling off so dramatically.
“It’s almost a double-edged sword,” quarterback Trace McSorley said. “You feel like we really want this run game to get going but, if teams are going to sell out (vs. the run), there’s no sense in jamming a square peg into a round hole. If teams are going to give us the pass, that’s something we got to be willing to take.”
Barkley may be college football’s most exciting, most dynamic player, but that hasn’t shown on the stat sheet lately. And the Heisman isn’t awarded simply based on pure ability or potential.
Barkley’s Heisman dreams might’ve died at Beaver Stadium on Saturday. The Scarlet Knights entered the game with the nation’s No. 85 run defense, one that allowed 223 rushing yards per game over its last six. But they forced Penn State to beat them through the air.
The Nittany Lions did — as McSorley finished 16 of 21 for 214 yards, two TDs and a passer rating of 193.2. But Barkley finished with his lowest output since Nov. 26, 2016, against Michigan State (14 yards on 12 carries), when McSorley finished with one of Penn State’s best passing performances in modern history.
With the way defenses are playing Penn State, Barkley can’t reach the line of scrimmage without being hit by two separate tacklers. That’s not on Barkley. It helps Penn State’s aerial attack, but it hurts Barkley’s Heisman chances.
“The award’s supposed to go to the best player in college football,” tight end Mike Gesicki countered. “Saquon’s the best player in college football. Plain and simple. There’s not much else that needs to be said.
“Give the man a trophy.”
Barkley has often brushed off talk of the Heisman this season, saying it’s obviously something he’d like — but it’s also not something he’s focused on. “You can only control what you can control,” Barkley said twice in four minutes.
And the former Heisman favorite can no longer control his odds to take home that trophy. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, Stanford’s Bryce Love and Arizona’s Khalil Tate will have to trip up for Barkley to stand any kind of chance.
Maybe it’s too late already. But his importance isn’t lost on his teammates. Heisman or not, Barkley will still go down as one of the Nittany Lions’ greatest all-time players. He just might not have the hardware to show for it.
“There’s a lot of stuff there behind the scenes that I think some of the voters might not see or realize what he’s doing for our team,” McSorley said. “The value he brings is indescribable. There’s a reason why teams are committing 8-9 guys in the box.”
Said Gesicki: “The thing that’s most impressive with him is the attitude he’s had with that and how he’s handed it. You would think he’s running for 250 yards with the way he’s carrying himself, with how positive he is.”