For the last three weeks, opponents have stifled running back Saquon Barkley, holding him to less than 100 yards in four of five contests prior to Saturday’s 38-14 walloping of Maryland.
All of that pent-up energy had to go somewhere.
Barkley blew past the 100-yard mark in the first half, racking up a career-high 202 rushing yards and a touchdown on Saturday and accounting for more than a third of Penn State’s 524 total offensive yards.
The sophomore may not have had the day he did if it weren’t for quarterback Trace Mcsorley’s combination of run-pass option execution and speed. McSorley, a dual threat who actually prefers to throw but runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash, rushed for 81 yards on 18 carries including two chunk runs for first downs and a touchdown.
“Trace getting the run going, him using his feet kept the defense honest,” Barkley said after the game. “We kind of thought we would be able to run the ball against them and we haven’t gotten the run game going yet. ... We felt that we could really start (it up), and Trace did an unbelievable job getting first downs and keeping drives alive.”
Head coach James Franklin agreed.
“I think (Trace) really helped us,” he said. “Getting Trace more involved in the run game, whether it’s called quarterback runs or RPOs (run-pass options), where in the past, the gray reads, we had been handing off. ... I think that helped us. One more thing for them to defend.
“It’s frustrating, for a defense, when you stop the run and do a great job in coverage and stop the pass, and all of the sudden the guy takes off and runs for 12-15 yards. ... I thought it was a major factor in the game. I think it really helped us, and I think it helped Saquon.”
I think (Trace) really helped us. Getting Trace more involved in the run game, whether it's called quarterback runs or RPOs, where in the past, the gray reads, we had been handing off...I think that helped us. One more thing for them to defend. It's frustrating, for a defense, when you stop the run and do a great job in coverage and stop the pass, and all of the sudden the guy takes off and runs for 12-15 yards...I thought it was a major factor in the game. I think it really helped us, and I think it helped Saquon.
Head coach James Franklin
And, as both the quarterback and running back chimed, neither would have performed as well on the ground if not for one of the better games Penn State’s offensive line has displayed in recent years.
The front five provided gaps aplenty for Barkley and McSorley, and the team accumulated 324 rushing yards — a game plan all-too-fitting for the day’s soggy, foggy weather, and the 372 net rushing yards were the most for the Nittany Lions since 2002.
“I mean, 200 yards, it’s all a credit to the offensive line,” said Barkley. “The O-line did an unbelievable job today. They played with passion. They played tough and physical. Coach Franklin always says before the games every week, ‘The games are won up front.’ And the O-line really took hold of that and they came out with a different attitude.”
Added left tackle Brendan Mahon, “Instead of five individuals, we are five guys playing as one.”
Penn State (4-2, 2-1) also finally got the fast start it has wanted for the last five games.
McSorley marched his team downfield in 2 1/2 minutes to open the contest, capping the seven-play drive with a five-yard touchdown pass to tight end Mike Gesicki. The 84-yard drive was highlighted by a game-opening 21-yard pass to receiver DaeSean Hamilton, and runs of 20 and 17 yards by Barkley and McSorley, respectively.
“That was huge for us,” said McSorley. “Being able to get the energy going on the sideline, get the fans going, get the stadium rocking ... that was awesome for us.”
Back-to-back sacks on Maryland’s following series by defensive ends Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan (the latter on third down and 17) forced the Terrapins to punt.
A penalty on third down halted a Penn State drive, and Maryland answered with a 66-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown halfway through the first period. Quarterback Perry Hills led Maryland to another first-half score, but ultimately left the game with an unspecified injury.
Penn State scored again with just over six minutes left in the second quarter off a slick fake-then-handoff to Barkley for a touchdown, but a holding penalty on offensive lineman Ryan Bates brought it back.
McSorley faked the same play moments later, but instead kept the ball and ran it in himself for the touchdown.
The two teams traded fumbles and Penn State got the ball back inside the 20-yard line with two minutes left in the half. The Nittany Lions were forced to punt after offensive tackle Andrew Nelson gave up a sack for loss. Nelson was injured on the play and had to leave the game on a cart. Franklin said after the game that he is likely out for the rest of the season.
Barkley broke loose on a 45-yard run to end the half with a Penn State score, but the running back fumbled in the third quarter on a promising Penn State drive. The Nittany Lions recovered well, ending the third quarter on a 70-yard touchdown strike from McSorley to receiver DeAndre Thompkins to push the lead to 31-24.
Barkley eclipsed 200 yards halfway through the final quarter, before giving way to freshman Miles Sanders. On Sanders’ first snap, he scored his first career touchdown on a 25-yard carry.
“That was amazing,” said Barkley. “I’m so happy for him, so happy that he was able to get into the end zone. I know when I first scored a touchdown, I was losing my mind, it was incredible. So I gave him a big hug, I was so proud of him.”
The Nittany Lions enter a bye week with time to nurse the many defensive injuries the team has sustained through six weeks. They are missing three starting linebackers and two defensive backs, and expect all but one (Nyeem Wartman-White) to return.
“Overall very happy with the win,” said Franklin. “Great momentum heading into the bye week. We need this time off. Some of our injuries are not going to heal in a week, but some will.”