Saquon Barkley sat there, thinking back to his high school days, pondering.
“Personally,” Barkley said with a brief pause. “Nah, I’ve never had a day like that.”
With two performances of 200 yards or more in his past four games and averaging 168.8 yards per contest during that span, Barkley was garnering enough attention to be in talks for a seat at the Heisman Trophy ceremony in December.
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Over the past month, the sophomore star continued to churn out stellar showings.
But Saturday was not one of them.
Barkley was held to 58 rushing yards on 33 carries in a 45-31 win over Indiana at Memorial Stadium. The back averaged 1.4 yards per carry, by far the lowest of his collegiate career. Prior to Saturday, Barkley’s worst yards per carry mark in a game with at least five carries was in Penn State’s 29-26 overtime win over Minnesota on Oct. 1 (3.2 yards per carry, 20 rushes for 63 yards).
Oddly enough, Barkley set a career-high in carries with 33 against the Hoosiers, trumping the 31 times he ran against Maryland on Oct. 8.
So, what was the problem?
It’s not as if Barkley forgot how to run the ball. It’s just hard to gain positive yards when you’re hit in the backfield as often as he was.
For starters, Penn State’s offensive line was hurting. Right tackle Brendan Mahon, who left the win over Iowa with an unspecified injury and was admitted to Hershey Medical Center this week, didn’t travel with the team.
Plus, left tackle Paris Palmer, who opened the season as Penn State’s backup and has been thrust into the starting lineup since Andrew Nelson’s injury against Maryland, left Saturday’s game after the first drive. Palmer returned to the sidelines for the second half wearing street clothes with crutches.
The line had issues meshing early to say the least.
“It’s tough to get into a groove on offense when you’re giving up that many tackles for loss,” senior center Brian Gaia said.
And more often than not it was Barkley hitting the turf. Eleven of Barkley’s 33 carries went for a loss, and an astonishing 25 of them were for two yards or less.
“You’re not real excited when you’re hit in the backfield,” Barkley said candidly. “You just can’t let it get to you.”
But for a bit, that’s what Barkley did, and it’s hard to blame him for being frustrated. Not only did the offensive line have to gel, but the Indiana defense was also selling out to stop the run.
The Hoosiers wanted someone other than Barkley to beat them.
“They have a great running back, one of the best in the country,” Indiana cornerback Rashard Fant said. “The big thing this week was we wanted to stop the run to give us a better chance and make them one-dimensional.”
Of course, Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley and his receivers took advantage of that subsequent man-to-man coverage.
But the Hoosiers did what they set out to do. They constantly put Barkley on his back, and it led to initial team-wide success. Indiana’s ability to stymie Penn State’s rushing attack allowed the Hoosiers to stick around with a 14-14 halftime tie and eventually gain a 24-14 third-quarter lead.
Barkley started to press.
“You have to be patient, and when stuff opens up, you have to take advantage of it. Today, I got out of that a little bit,” Barkley said. “I was trying to make a play too much. Things weren’t going our way, and I was trying to be a playmaker. I just had to settle down, relax and take what they give you.”
And when he did that in the fourth quarter, Barkley found a bit of space. The back had only four runs of 11 yards or more — two of them came in the final period, and the last of them helped Penn State its win.
Down 31-28 with a few minutes to go, a 13-yard run by Barkley had the Nittany Lions knocking on Indiana’s door two yards out.
While he got some help from his linemen pushing behind him, Barkley barreled over Hoosier defenders.
Penn State coach James Franklin reminded media of the viral video of Barkley power cleaning 390 pounds in the offseason.
“That was that right there,” Franklin said.
As 80-yard runs and hurdling defenders has become the norm with Barkley, Saturday was far from that.
But against an emerging rush defense that planned around him, and dealing with an inexperienced, patchwork offensive line, Barkley took the positives where he could get them.
He’ll have a chance to rebound against Rutgers, who allowed 277 rushing yards to Michigan State on Saturday.