James Franklin said Penn State’s offense had a few wrinkles ready for Saquon Barkley over the second half of the season, and boy did the two of them deliver on that promise in a 42-13 White Out win over Michigan.
On the second play of the night, Barkley lined up to Trace McSorley’s right before calmly stepping left and taking the direct snap 69 yards for his first of three touchdowns against the Wolverines’ then-No. 1 total defense. It was the first time Penn State deployed Barkley in the Wildcat formation since his freshman year in 2015.
Franklin said using an empty backfield and staying in empty was something the Nittany Lions hadn’t put on film before the Michigan game, and they got more creative with motioning him back and forth to keep the maize and blue guessing.
“But where we did a great job is, we didn’t show it,” Franklin said. “So, instead of lining up and putting the quarterback out wide, we’re able to shift to it at the last minute so they can’t go to a Wildcat check.”
By forcing Michigan to spend extra time preparing for the Tommy Stevens package, Joe Moorhead was able to slip this one right under Don Brown’s nose. No one saw a return to the Wildcat taking place Saturday, which is exactly why it worked so well.
Perhaps there will be a second surprise in store for the Buckeyes this weekend.
“We had another play that Joe wanted to call, and I just said, ‘I prefer you not,'” Franklin added.
Not only has Moorhead showcased the Coplay, PA, native’s tremendous pass-catching skills out of the backfield, but he’s thrown a touchdown pass to DaeSean Hamilton and housed a kickoff to boot. And that’s just the first seven games. Barkley has already scored 13 total touchdowns as a junior.
“We’re willing to take what you give us, but when we get the opportunity we’re willing to throw over your head,” Barkley said of an attack that’s averaging 40 points on the dot. “You see it in flashes, but Trace can really run the ball.”
McSorley finished with three scrambling touchdowns in the victory over Michigan, while Barkley became the first Penn State player ever to surpass 3,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards. He now trails just Curt Warner and Evan Royster on the program’s all-time rushing list.
Stanford star Bryce Love, who’s widely considered the favorite to spoil Barkley’s Heisman hopes, may have 600 more rushing yards, but has caught only four passes and doesn’t return kicks. Barkley plays on the East Coast for a team with College Football Playoff aspirations, and he simply has the “wow” factor voters crave.
11 of the past 16 Heisman winners played in the national championship after hoisting the trophy, and Barkley has as good a shot as any of the main contenders to reach that stage in Atlanta on January 8. Plus, he has a refreshing ability to never be satisfied. Locking the ball in is priority No. 1 in practice this week.
“The play that stuck with me a little bit, obviously I had to get past it, was the drop,” Barkley said postgame. “Sometimes I overthink and I just put myself in a bad situation. I’ve been working on my ball skills, but this humbles you again, makes you realize that you’ve gotta put a little more work in and find a way to make those plays.”
From the start of this season, Penn State football’s social media crew has focused primarily on selling Barkley’s all-purpose allure, brilliantly ensuring he isn’t labeled merely as a running back in what has increasingly become a quarterback’s award to lose.
Barkley’s clip of 211.1 yards per game is the highest in the nation. San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny has 1,530 yards — 52 more than Barkley — but he’s played an additional game and registered 49 more touches.
It’s against Barkley’s deflective personality to draw attention to himself by striking the pose early, but let’s say he has another “Heisman moment” in Columbus and scores three more touchdowns or goes for 200-plus yards in a win. Then, it would make too much sense for him not to unleash the iconic stiff arm in the end zone.