Penn State Football

Washington wowed by Penn State’s ‘rare talent’ in Saquon Barkley

Playing on the West Coast certainly has its drawbacks. Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey arguably lost the 2015 Heisman Trophy due to a lack of exposure, and fans in major markets halfway across the country won’t always stay up to watch #Pac12AfterDark.

But for players on teams like Washington, while sitting in their hotels waiting for kickoff, they’re able to catch afternoon Big Ten action — and see arguably the most talented player in the nation.

“I mean,” Washington linebacker Tevis Bartlett started with a grin, “you don’t watch ESPN without hearing Saquon Barkley’s name.”

In Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl, the No. 11 Huskies are tasked with bottling up the back whose highlights seemingly appeared on SportsCenter every week. Even though Barkley has been held to less than 100 rushing yards on eight occasions this season, the Huskies — who boast the nation’s top rush defense (92.3 yards per game) — aren’t taking him for granted.

“He’s as good as anybody we’ve seen,” Washington coach Chris Petersen said. “If he gets a step on you, he’s going to make you pay. You have to really play team defense. If someone gets out-leveraged, it’ll be a problem.

“He’s a rare talent for sure.”

Petersen admitted he hadn’t studied or seen much of Barkley before the team’s Fiesta Bowl prep.

His players, well, they’re a different story.

Huskies defensive back Taylor Rapp used Washington’s bye week to watch Penn State’s primetime matchup with Michigan. The first-team All-Pac-12 selection came away impressed as the Nittany Lions routed the Wolverines 42-13 on Oct. 21.

“He played really well in that game,” Rapp said, citing Barkley’s three-touchdown, 161-yard performance. “I mean, he plays well every game. But he’s such a special player. ... And he stands out on tape even more than just watching his games. You see the little things that he does. On a five-yard run, he might make three or four people miss.”

Washington linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven concurred.

“You watch film, and he’s running through guys, past guys and juking guys,” the second-team conference pick said. “He’s definitely a pretty unique talent, nothing like we’ve seen.”

Several other Washington defensive players echoed the same plan to stop Penn State’s Maxwell Award finalist: team defense and gang tackling.

In the case of Barkley, that is easier said than done. But Washington has shown it’s more than capable of pulling it off.

The Huskies’ linebacker havoc rating — a percentage of plays resulting in a tackle for loss, interception, forced fumble or pass breakup, according to Bill Connelly’s S&P+ ratings — is third nationally. Bartlett and linebacker Ryan Bowman’s 20.5 combined tackles for loss is a key part of that.

Those two, in addition to Pac-12 defensive player of the year and Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea, will make it hard on Penn State to run the ball, and based on statistics alone, Washington seems ready for the threat Barkley poses.

On top of all that, the Huskies have done their homework.

“He’ll show inside run, it will be an inside run, and he’ll just make something happen,” Washington linebacker Keishawn Bierria said, “and boom, bounce outside, 30 yards, touchdown.”

Added Rapp: “Everyone knows about Saquon. He’s a special player.”

John McGonigal: 814-231-4630, @jmcgonigal9