Penn State Football

How Miles Sanders stepped out of Saquon Barkley’s shadow at Illinois

Penn State running back Miles Sanders (24) finds a hole in the first quarter against Illinois during an NCAA college football game Friday, Sept. 21, 2018, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Holly Hart)
Penn State running back Miles Sanders (24) finds a hole in the first quarter against Illinois during an NCAA college football game Friday, Sept. 21, 2018, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Holly Hart) AP

Miles Sanders hugged his mother, Marlene, tight. For 30 seconds, they rocked back and forth together, Sanders still in his all-white uniform standing on the turf sideline, his biggest fan in the first row.

In that moment, Marlene reminded Miles why he came to Penn State. Why he sat behind Saquon Barkley. Why he persevered and remained patient. It was all for a night like Friday.

“She knows what I’ve been going through,” Sanders said. “I’ve been waiting for this for two years.”

Sanders — grinning as he finally left the field with eye-black crosses smudged on his cheeks — was Penn State’s savior in Champaign. The junior tailback, likely known forever as Saquon’s successor, stepped out of the superstar’s shadow with 200 rushing yards, three touchdowns and a crushing 9.1 yards per carry in Penn State’s 63-24 win over Illinois.

Sanders guided the Nittany Lions to 387 rushing yards, the most they’ve had as a team since Larry Johnson went off against Michigan State in 2002. He joined a prolific list of 200-yard single-game rushers that includes Barkley, John Cappelletti, Ki-Jana Carter, Blair Thomas and Lydell Mitchell.

This wasn’t Sanders’ first noteworthy performance. He landed the cover of Sports Illustrated after a pair of touchdowns, including the game-winner, stymied Appalachian State’s upset bid in Week 1. In his homecoming to Heinz Field, he recorded his first-ever 100-yard game.

But in his fifth career start, the soft-spoken kid from Woodland Hills took over on the field. And off it, well, he grew up. Penn State barely led after two quarters, 21-17, despite Sanders already hitting the century mark, and he couldn’t stay quiet much longer.

“At halftime, he took a little bit more of a voice than he usually does,” Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley said.

Sanders directed the team to “lock in.”

“Told the defense to tighten up. I told the offense to stop making mistakes and to be ourselves. And special teams to keep going,” the back recalled. “The whole team, we had to keep going.”

Sanders’ words worked. Penn State’s first drive out of halftime was five plays — all rushing attempts by the new bellcow back. And he didn’t disappoint on that fifth run, ripping through the Illini’s second level and skating into the end zone for a 48-yard score. It was his third touchdown of the night, one that put Penn State back ahead 28-24.

Thanks in large part to Sanders’ sledding, the Nittany Lions refused to surrender the lead. The 5-foot-11, 215-pounder powered through arm tackles, dragged defenders for yards after contact and, more often that not, made that first guy miss. On 22 carries, he didn’t get stopped for a loss once.

A part of that was Penn State’s offensive line clearing orange bowling pins out of Sanders’ lanes. But the junior deserved recognition, and he got it.

“Sometimes there’s nothing prettier than an ugly three-yard run,” Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin said. “A lot of times at running back, you want to bounce everything, and you want to try and go 80 every single time, and now we end up at second-and-12. So getting a running back to understand to lower your shoulder and fighting in a crack and getting two or three yards and keeping us on schedule, it’s important, and he’s doing a really good job of that.”

Sanders’ predecessor would often times take those chances. Of course, Barkley broke games open and earned a reputation for those awe-inspiring runs.

But Sanders is different. He’s a different runner, a different person.

Finally, after two long years, everyone saw that Friday.

“He’s getting more comfortable every day that he’s in there,” McSorley said. “Continues to grow and become that leader of the offense, the run game.”

Added wideout Juwan Johnson: “He’s been carrying that load. I’m proud of him. I’m glad he got this game.”

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