Seven games into Penn State’s 2015 season, there is still time to hop aboard the train of thought that believes true freshman running back Saquon Barkley is a special kind of talent.
Barkley was finally back in action after a two-week stint on the sideline as he recovered from an ankle injury — head coach James Franklin said after Saturday night’s 38-10 walloping at Ohio State that he felt Barkley was ready a week earlier, but doctors nixed it — and boy, did he ever show up.
The freshman racked up 194 yards rushing on 26 carries against the No. 1 team in the nation in its own house, with an offensive line that has been porous to its own team’s disadvantage, and created few (memorable when they occurred, but few) gaps for, dare it be said, “normal” backs to sneak through when Barkley was out.
“Obviously he played well this week, we want to keep building on that,” said Franklin.
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In the two Big Ten games during which he’s seen time, Barkley is averaging about eight yards per carry and has recorded an average of 194.5 yards.
Quarterback Christian Hackenberg was asked about the young phenom after Saturday’s game, and said, “I think he adds another element, he is able to make plays after contact, he did a great job of that all day today.”
Of course, that might be the understatement of the year.
Barkley’s style isn’t just effective. It’s exhilarating. Juke-step-shimmy Saquon. He of the cut-and-run. The stiff-arms. The hurdles over hapless defenders.
But on Saturday night, 200 rushing yards wasn’t enough. Barkley flew into the end zone just twice — once with the ball, but the touchdown was called back after offensive guard Brian Gaia jumped before the snap and was flagged for a false start, and then without the ball as Hackenberg moved through progressions with his pocket collapsing around him and was sacked before noticing a wide-open Barkley curling out toward the corner.
With only a few minutes to play and Penn State down by four touchdowns, there still was Barkley, pounding away at Ohio State’s starting defense.
It seemed, then, that Franklin didn’t utilize Barkley as an offensive weapon, once the game got out of hand, but instead as a band-aid; a way to rack up as many yards as possible to hide what was left of the offense if Barkley’s stats were taken out of consideration -- just seven completed passes and 120 yards passing, a touchdown and a field goal.
“No different than late in the game, they still had (Joey) Bosa and their starting defense in there,” said Franklin. “We’re still playing football to win, and try to find a way to be successful.”
Interesting to note in juxtaposition with the head coach’s postgame point was the fact that starting guards Gaia and Brendan Mahon hardly played in the second half of the game, meaning Hackenberg, running back Akeel Lynch (also back after suffering a painful-looking knee injury against San Diego State) and Barkley were in facing Ohio State’s first-team defensive line without the first line of their own defense: two starters on the offensive line.
• Penn State held Ohio State scoreless in both the first and third quarters on Saturday night. It was the first time all season that the Buckeyes have not scored in the third quarter. The Nittany Lions have now held all opponents to 14 points in a combined seven first quarters this season.
And after racking up just 13 third-quarter points themselves this season, Penn State came out firing after the half. Hackenberg threw deep on his first snap of the half — a spiral that traveled about 36 yards in the air before Chris Godwin snagged it under heavy coverage, and dragged cornerback Eli Apple another 20 yards on his back. Barkley then ran for 14 yards on the next carry, and Hackenberg connected with DaeSean Hamilton for an 8-yard touchdown pass to seal the series.
“We went in the locker room and kind of regrouped,” said Mahon. “We wanted to come out firing in the second half and we did that, but the score at the end of the night kind of told it.”
• Tight end Adam Breneman, who has been out nursing various injuries for the past two years, saw his first real game minutes since Penn State played Wisconsin in 2013, in the first quarter Saturday night. The travel roster is usually limited, but Breneman made the trip in lieu of Kyle Carter, who is out with an undisclosed injury.
“Not having Kyle really factored into Adam Breneman,” said Franklin. “We weren’t sure that Adam would be available, started working him on the scout team. Kyle goes down, you know, we’re able to bring Adam up and he handled it well. Obviously first game back (for him) in a long time. You know, I think from Wednesday on he practiced with us and did some good things.”
• Carl Nassib notched another two sacks for a total of 12 through seven games. He still is the national leader in sacks and has two more than Wisconsin linebacker Joe Schobert.
• Penn State converted just one third down in 11 attempts, and entered the game with just a 30 percent conversion rate on third down. The team went for it on two fourth downs and converted neither.
• For the past few weeks, tight end Mike Gesicki has spoken about improving after many mistakes in his first few games at starting tight end. Gesicki said he read all of the criticism directed toward him on social media, and even took screen shots of the particularly vicious barbs for motivation.
Tough, then, for the sophomore, when he was targeted by Hackenberg in the first quarter, with Penn State up three points, on a 30-yard pass with nothing but the air behind him — and the ball bounced off his hands and fell incomplete.
“He’s got a chance to be a really good player. We believe in him,” said Franklin. “He’s got opportunities to make plays that he will make. And we’re going to keep going to him and keep giving him those opportunities. He’s made those plays in practice, he’s made those plays in games, but he needs to do it consistently.”
• Penn State’s offensive line gave up five sacks to a pass rush that included Bosa and Adolphus Washington. One of them came on a crucial 4th-and-2 with the Nittany Lions staring into the Ohio State end zone. The pocket collapsed around Hackenberg as he stepped forward through his progressions and missed a wide-open Barkley for the score.
“I just saw my first two reads were taken away,” Hackenberg said after the game. “By the time I got to three and four, I had to kind of climb up in the pocket and figure out how to evade some things, so, you know, it was what it was. I have to look at that one on film again.”
• Penn State couldn’t contain a true dual-threat in Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett. The quarterback entered the second quarter and was immediately effective, running for two scores to help the Buckeyes push a 21-3 lead by the half.
“I thought we were actually playing pretty good when it was a traditional drop-back quarterback (in Cardale Jones),” said Franklin. “Now, Barrett comes in, and the speed and the athleticism he has, not only to beat you with his arm, but also beat you with his legs.”
Barrett finished with 102 rushing yards on 11 carries with two touchdowns, and two of his four passes were for touchdowns.
When the head coach of a Division-1 FBS football team mentions, right after a game, that the issues with punting are so “major” that he is even open to holding an open tryout to try to rectify the issue, it’s pretty clear that things aren’t going well.
Punters Chris Gulla and Daniel Pasquariello averaged 36.2 and 33.5 yards apiece, respectively.
Gulla was pulled for Pasquariello in the second quarter after shanking a punt 32 yards out of bounds in Penn State territory. The Australian did not fare much better, and shanked one of his own 29 yards out of bounds at the Penn State 41-yard line.
The two allowed Ohio State to start in Penn State territory four times. The issues were glaring, and made worse by the effective pinbacks Buckeyes punter Cameron Johnston was able to execute each time he stepped up to punt.
“Not only was he able to swing field position on us a couple of times, he was also able to sky punt us and back us down there deep a bunch of times,” said Franklin. “Then we go to punt it, and we go for...what was the average? It wasn’t very good.
“...We’re having major issues, we’ve had major issues for two years with punting the ball,” said Franklin. “The way we need to play right now, which is play great on defense, and find ways to grind it out on offense and play field position, we haven’t been able to do that for two years. If we need to have open tryouts, we’re going to have to find a way to solve that problem. That’s been a major issue for us.”