How Saquon Barkley Affects Penn State’s Odds Against Ohio State
Nick Scott and Mark Allen have filled in admirably in relief of Akeel Lynch and Saquon Barkley as both recover from injuries, but let’s be honest — neither can replace Barkley’s staggering production. The freshman phenom set the field ablaze during his impressive three-game tear, rushing for 372 yards and three touchdowns while averaging 8.9 yards per carry — a figure that ranks above Heisman contenders Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette.
Though he’s been withheld from the past two games nursing a lower-body injury, it appears as though Barkley will make his return to the field Saturday night in Columbus, giving the Nittany Lions a much needed weapon in its depleted backfield. Opening as 17.5 point road underdogs, the odds are stacked against James Franklin and his program, but the return of Barkley at least gives the Lions a fighting chance. The Buckeyes might be the top-ranked team in the nation, but they’re far from perfect. Let’s take a look at how Barkley’s presence in the backfield significantly alters the dynamic of Saturday’s primetime showdown.
Despite fielding an all-world defensive line headlined by a pair of stars that’ll most likely hear their names called during next spring’s NFL Draft in Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington, the team most labeled “superhuman” in the offseason looks surprisingly human on the defensive side of the ball. Returning starters Vonn Bell and Eli Apple man a secondary that’s only allowed 145.5 yards per game through the air — good for No. 9 in the nation. While Urban Meyer’s pass defense is formidable, the ground defense is another story. Over the past four weeks, the Buckeyes allowed 110, 169, 176, and 253 respectively against teams that a unanimous No. 1 preseason pick should have no problem containing.
The biggest issue for the Buckeyes seems to be stopping the big gain, and it’s a problem that’s only gotten worse as the season progresses. Luckily for Penn State, picking up yards by the bushel is something Barkley’s excelled at during his impressive stretch, so expect offensive coordinator John Donovan to exploit this weakness as often as he can with Barkley running on fresh legs.
The Buckeyes have struggled all season with containing the edge — a surprising notion given the litany of talent sprinkled across their front seven — and Indiana quarterback Zander Diamont makes them pay dearly on this momentum-swinging fourth quarter run in the Hoosiers’ near upset bid two weeks ago.
Let’s digest some numbers; Ohio State has allowed 152.67 yards on the ground in 2015, but opposing offenses still average 3.52 yards per attempt. Now consider that Ohio State has allowed gains of 70+ yards in consecutive weeks, validating my claim and confirming the supposed juggernaut’s weakness. While it’s apparent that the Buckeyes possess the ability to keep backs in check, it’s those explosive plays that can put points on the board quickly. If Zander Diamont and Perry Ellis can rack up big runs, there’s no reason why a healthy Barkley can’t restore that dynamic element to a Penn State rushing attack that’s seemed anemic at times.
Barkley’s innate quickness after hitting the hole is special, and it’s a trait that’s helped put him on the map early in his career. He displayed it in the rain against Buffalo, and he flashed it against Rutgers in taking a standard power run and turning it into a 54-yard scamper down the right sideline. With his vision and quickness, he’s a home run threat every time he touches the ball.
With a player like Barkley in the lineup, it’s assumed that Franklin and Donovan will adjust their offensive gameplan accordingly. The team is expected to pound the ball down Ohio State’s metaphorical throat, and leading the charge will be No. 26. Barkley is a special player, and special players can occasionally serve as the determining factor in a game. He ravaged unsuspecting early-season foes, but now it’s time to see what he can do against the biggest test of season.
If Penn State is to have any feasible chance at winning, I’m taking Barkley in my corner.