Saquon Barkley started Saturday night’s showdown with another play to add to his Heisman candidacy as he coasted into the end zone for a 97-yard touchdown on the opening kickoff.
But that wasn’t the beginning of a big night for Barkley. That was just about the end.
The Nittany Lions star running back didn’t have an opportunity to take over the game on the ground or as a receiver. He didn’t have much open field or the room to make cuts, finishing with 44 rushing yards on 21 carries. He also caught four balls for 23 yards.
“They were blitzing, bringing pressures, added extra hats in the running game scheme-wise,” Barkley said. “That’s really all I really saw. Their D-line made plays. Like I said, it’s a talented group. I got to find a way to break tackles, got to find a way to fight for extra yards and make plays.”
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Barkley has been a frontrunner for the Heisman all season, making big plays and wowing teammates and fans week in and week out. The dynamic back has found a way to make a difference to fuel Penn State’s rise to No. 2 in the nation, even with opposing defenses focused on limiting him. And opposing coaches have complimented him all year, including Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, who said during this week that Barkley may be the best “all-purpose” his teams have ever faced.
Barkley immediately reminded the nation why he’s the Heisman favorite with his kickoff return on Saturday night.
“Probably the best player in the country,” Penn State linebacker Koa Farmer said before stating a stronger opinion. “He is the best player in the country. If I was a kicker or coach, I wouldn’t probably kick it to him, too.”
The Buckeyes kicked away from Barkley the rest of the night, and their defense ensured he wouldn’t have add another play to his highlight reel. The Buckeyes smothered Barkley in the backfield and didn’t allow him to escape when he looked to change direction.
“Our defense was all over him,” Meyer said. “And one of the biggest things that makes him such a great player is the ability to catch the ball. And I was as worried about that, because we’re a man coverage team, all of a sudden you get stuck with a linebacker playing man-to-man.”
Penn State coach James Franklin said the Buckeyes’ approach was similar against Barkley was similar to what the Nittany Lions have seen all season.
“But they’re doing it with really good athletes,” Franklin said. “They’re extremely explosive, extremely athletic.”
That was on display throughout the game, with the Buckeyes dropping Barkley before he could make one move. On third-and-goal in the fourth quarter, Barkley took the handoff and fell straight to the ground with opposing defenders shooting into the backfield, forcing the Nittany Lions to settle for a field goal to take a 38-27 lead.
Later, when the Nittany Lions took possession with 4:14 left in the fourth, Ohio State defensive end Sam Hubbard crashed into Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley as he tried to make a handoff to Barkley. Hubbard pushed back McSorley and Barkley at the same time for the stop, a loss of seven yards for Penn State’s running back.
The Nittany Lions running game couldn’t close out the win with a five-point lead.
“Four-minute situation as a running back, that’s what you live on,” Barkley said. “You got to find a way to get a first down, keep the sticks moving, whatever it takes. If you got to make one guy miss, two guys miss or you got to find a hole. We weren’t able to do that. I wasn’t able to do that.”
But Barkley said he’ll work to get better and to keep his teammates upbeat as they look to bounce back from the disappointing loss.
“Our season’s not over,” Barkley said. “Our season’s not over. We beat this team last year, and they were able to make it to the College Football Playoff, so our season’s far from over.
“We just got to stick with it, trust the process, trust the little things, continue to do the little things, continue to work at the standard.”