Saquon Barkley chewed his blue mouthpiece like a stick of gum on the sideline, watching the final minute of Saturday’s game tick away.
He sat on the bench, unassuming, as if he was waiting for the next play-call. He didn’t seem like a running back who once again surprised a nation of college football fans and gave Heisman voters another few blue-and-white talking points.
The humble junior opened the game with a 98-yard kickoff return and threw a touchdown pass in the final quarter. With that, he became the sixth FBS player — and the first Big Ten athlete — to achieve a pass TD and kick return TD in the same game since 1996.
“He’s always doing something unique,” safety Marcus Allen said, “something that the average human can’t do.”
Barkley treated his performance Saturday — 205 all-purpose yards; 16 passing yards — like he treats most games where he surprises teammates or causes opponents to shake their heads. He credited his team, shied away from the spotlight and thanked the coaching staff.
That kickoff return? “My mindset was just, your team did its job; you got to find a way in the end zone,” Barkley said. And the touchdown pass? “I got to thank JoeMo (offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead) for trusting me to make that pass, and DaeSean (Hamilton) making that catch,” he added.
Barkley knows as well as anyone: He can deflect the praise and limelight as much as he wants. It doesn’t matter. The nation has finally caught on to what Happy Valley has known since September 2015 — Barkley is special — and it’s hard to forget that when he never fails to remind each week.
“Saquon can you hurt you as a returner, he can hurt you as a receiver as we’ve seen a lot this season,” coach James Franklin said. “And he’s also obviously one of the better true running backs in terms of carrying the ball.”
Barkley acknowledged after the game there’s no escaping the attention. “It’s 2017,” he said, smiling. He’s active on social media, and he’s often tagged on Instagram or in tweets about ESPN’s online Heisman Ballot. He’s well-aware of the hype he’s generated.
It’s just a matter of remaining the unassuming football player who doesn’t develop an ego.
“You can’t hide; you can’t run away from it,” Barkley said. “But the best thing you can do as a person is not to get caught up in it.”
It would be easy to focus on the plays that generate exclamations in the press box like “Oh my God,” “Jeez,” and “That’s incredible!” But Barkley tries not to dwell on them. Against Indiana, there were at least three.
On the opening play of the game, he fielded the kick return at his own 2, then weaved through the middle of the field, stutter-stepped the kicker and then kicked up his heels up to avoid a diving tackle on his way to the end zone. Later in the first quarter, Barkley snagged the ball out of the air — palming it with one hand — and turned what appeared to be a loss into a 36-yard gain.
And then, of course, came the halfback pass, where he threw a little jump-pass to Hamilton when the defense crowded him.
“We’re never surprised by his ability,” offensive lineman Ryan Bates said. “You can give him the rock, and he can do anything. He’s a one-of-a-kind player.”
Barkley turns it up when his team needs it most. During practice, the halfback pass wasn’t an immediate success. Barkley laughed about it after the game Saturday, telling reporters the ball essentially stuck to his hand and hit the ground on one attempt.
But, once the games roll around, Barkley never fails to disappoint. He has 1,218 all-purpose yards so far this season to go along with seven rushing/receiving/returning touchdowns and a pass TD.
He quickly corrected himself when he said he doesn’t care about the Heisman. But it remains a real possibility for the Nittany Lion whom many think is a lock as a top-5 NFL draft pick.
“Obviously I care about it because I’m competitive, and I want to be the best, and I would love to try to win,” Barkley said. “But that’s not my focus. My focus is on my team; my focus is on the game.”