Saquon Barkley’s College Career As Told By Five Games
It’s easy to look at Saquon Barkley’s college career as a body of work through a Gestaltian lens and not fully appreciate how incredible the individual moments were.
You’ll unfortunately never remember every handoff, reception, or broken tackle from Barkley’s meteoric rise that coincided with the resurgence of Penn State’s once ill-fated football program. After all, he touched the ball 793 times during his career.
Obviously, the hurdles, kickoffs returned for touchdowns, and images of Mike Gesicki proudly hoisting Barkley into the air won’t ever be forgotten. But there was always so much more to witness when Barkley took the field than just the GIF-able moments that quickly went viral on Twitter.
Mixed in with the magical touchdown runs and memorable play-by-play calls were weekly displays of character, leadership, and resolve, attributes that epitomized the core values of Penn State’s program and made Barkley the true face of it.
September 12, 2015 vs. Buffalo
A star was born on a rainy September afternoon in Happy Valley, otherwise known as the backdrop to the richest moments of Barkley’s career. Penn State entered the Beaver Stadium opener against Buffalo coming off a deflating 27-10 loss to Temple in week one.
In that loss, Barkley forgettably ran for a single yard on one carry.
Fans (at least the ones who actually knew his name at the point) prepared for the same old Penn State and expected nothing special of the preseason fourth-string running back.
One week later, with the rain falling at Beaver Stadium as it so often does, Barkley began to rewrite the narrative of what his career would amount to and how different the program he’d one day leave would be from the one he had entered.
After Penn State scored only 20 points in the first six quarters of the season, John Donovan switched up his offensive game plan to begin the second half against Buffalo. He put the ball in the hands of Barkley, who hadn’t had a touch all game, as Penn State led a MAC team 10-0 at the half.
On Penn State’s first drive of the half, Donovan called three straight handoffs to Barkley. Even when John Donovan made good decisions, they were still quite bad. On his three carries, Barkley ground out nine yards to set up a fourth-and-one in Buffalo territory, which a delay of game penalty squandered.
After the Nittany Lions and Bulls traded punts, Donovan seemed to revert back to his old offensive tactics, handing the ball to Akeel Lynch and forcing passes from Christian Hackenberg to Mike Gesicki. But on first-and-goal from the Buffalo nine yard line, Barkley served up his most memorable first of the afternoon — on paper, a nondescript, five-yard run up the middle.
Only, it was how he got to the four yard line that got fans talking, made defensive coordinators antsy, and became the first clip in a career-long saga of highlight-reel plays. Barkley went airborne and cleared safety Ryan Williamson in mid-stride with an effortless skip, the first demonstration of what would come to be known as his move — like the Skyhook to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Stepover to Ronaldo.
“Once that hole opened up, I knew [Barkley] was gonna do it,” Lynch said after the game. “He’s talking about it all the time, he says, ‘If safety comes up I’m gonna hurdle him.’”
Naturally, Donovan tried throwing the ball twice from inside the five, and Penn State had to settle for a field goal.
In the ensuing possessions, Barkley rattled off runs of 33, 24, and 17 yards and scored his first career touchdown, a nine-yard rush midway through the fourth quarter that put Penn State ahead by 20 points.
In total, he ran for 115 yards on 12 carries. The Buffalo game was the first of 25 games with more than 100 all-purpose yards in his career. He played only 38 games. He earned Big Ten Co-Player of the Week, his first on a laundry list of awards as a Nittany Lion.
The next week, Barkley turned even more heads. He exploded against the team he had originally committed to, Rutgers, running for 195 yards and two touchdowns. He won his second-straight Big Ten Co-Freshman of the Week honor and recorded his second of five 100-yard games as a freshman.
Barkley’s freshman season resulted in 1,076 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. Penn State had found its running back for the foreseeable future, but it hadn’t even scratched the surface of how it’d use him and what he’d contribute to the program.
October 1, 2016 vs. Minnesota
Everything during Saquon Barkley’s impressive rookie season came with John Donovan calling the plays. In the same way that a race car performs at its best when an experienced driver has his foot on the gas, as opposed to any average John Do(novan)e, Barkley would never reach his full potential without the right person at the helm.
What would later define Barkley’s career was how the offensive mastermind behind his sophomore and junior seasons, Joe Moorhead, would creatively adapt his hodgepodge skill set and freak athleticism.
The duo, alongside quarterback Trace McSorley, turned a once-weak offensive unit into one of the nation’s most dynamic groups. During Moorhead’s two seasons at Penn State, Barkley was the centerpiece of an offensive machine that averaged 39.6 points per game.
However, as good as Moorhead’s offenses were, one of their ugliest performances tells the stories of both Barkley’s career and its effect on Penn State football — more so than the 60+ point games, the time Barkley scored all five of Penn State’s touchdowns in a shootout against Pitt, and that touchdown pass to DaeSean Hamilton.
Revisionist history remembers the Minnesota game as the turning point of the season and one of many displays of how dynamic Barkley is. However, the early October game was perhaps the worst game of Barkley’s season…for the first 60 minutes, at least.
Kanye West’s visit to the Bryce Jordan Center on his The Life of Pablo tour Friday night was supposed to be the highlight of a weekend that included bad weather and a home game between perennially irrelevant Minnesota and an underwhelming Penn State team.
A miserable, windy Saturday with on-and-off showers began with Beaver Stadium receiving an undisclosed threat and then being cleared three and a half hours before kickoff. Once the game began, Penn State, playing without seven injured starters, found itself in a 13-3 hole at the half.
Cheers of “Fire Franklin” and “We want Les!” (referring to the recently fired LSU coach Les Miles) echoed through Beaver Stadium.
A long touchdown pass from Trace McSorley to Irvin Charles, a Tyler Davis field goal, and a short scoring run by McSorley put Penn State ahead 20-13 after three quarters. The Gophers responded in the fourth quarter with 10 unanswered points, including a go-ahead field goal by Emmitt Carpenter with just less than a minute to play.
McSorley managed to move the offense 53 yards in 52 seconds to set up a game-tying, 40-yard field goal by Davis that forced overtime.
In overtime, Penn State’s offense needed a field goal to tie the game or a touchdown to win it, after the defense, led by Marcus Allen’s record-setting 22 tackles, held the Gophers to a field goal.
Barkley had finished regulation with 38 yards on 19 carries and one reception for -3 yards. However, one run changed the course of Barkley’s day and reversed the direction of Penn State’s season and the trajectory of the program.
“I just kept talking to him, ‘Keep plugging, just keep plugging. It’s going to pop. You’re going to get one. Just stay with it,'” McSorley said. “You saw at the end. He was able to pop through.”
Barkley took the handoff from McSorley and shot right up the middle past an off-balance Gaelin Elmore. With Adekunle Ayinde and Jalen Myrick closing in on him from opposite sides, Barkley faked a cut to the sidelines and cut behind Ayinde toward the middle of the field. Elmore, running downfield, made one last dive at Barkley’s feet at the five yard line.
Barely touched on the run, Barkley skipped into the end zone with a proud high-step before being mobbed by his teammates in front of fans sitting in the north end zone.
“It was like a dream,” he said after the game. “It’s something I’ve visualized as a recruit, scoring that touchdown and winning the game for the team. And I was blessed enough to get in the end zone, it was one of the best feelings I’ve had in my life.”
Even with his touchdown, Barkley’s 60 all-purpose yards counted for the third-lowest output of his career. Yet, he had managed to finally break through the glass wall defense and give his team the win.
“I’m really proud of Saquon,” Franklin said in his postgame press conference. “He’s not having the big games and statistics that I think people anticipated or expected, you haven’t seen him once with bad body language, hang his head, been a great team player. Just kept persevering, waiting for opportunities, and when it came, made a big play for us.”
“You go back and watch the celebration that just happened out there, and that will speak volumes for what [the win] means to everyone in this program,” Mike Gesicki said. “Coaches, training staff, players, starters, backups, redshirt, it doesn’t matter; that celebration was an entire team celebration.”
Had Barkley, the best player on the field, not taken what had been an unbearably ugly game into his own hands, Penn State could have lost and fell to a 2-3 record on the season.
Minnesota could have been 4-0 and the team with a sense of validation that would emerge from the Big Ten.
Perhaps James Franklin, owner of a near-.500 career record, could have been without a job by the end of the month.
Joe Moorhead, whose offense had scored a combined 33 points in its last eight quarters of regulation, could have been tagged as an inexperienced, FCS-caliber fish out of water.
Yet that run by Barkley was a metaphor for the Nittany Lions’ season, one that included both a 39-point loss to the division’s third-place finisher and a conference title. Being down but never out became a theme for Penn State in 2017. Of the team’s 11 wins, it trailed during the second half in five of them.
“I think [the comeback win] was definitely something our players needed,” Franklin said. “Everyone needed it, there’s no doubt about it.”
January 2, 2017 vs. USC
Three months after the Penn State started its winning streak against Minnesota, it came to an end in the 2017 Rose Bowl. However, even in the loss, Saquon Barkley seized the moment.
Barkley and Sam Darnold cemented their statuses as almost definite top-five picks in the 2018 NFL Draft during their meeting in the Rose Bowl. Although Darnold’s gutsy heroics carried USC to a thrilling win in the most exciting Rose Bowl in more than a decade, Barkley too emerged on the national scene. He ran for 194 yards and a pair of scores and tacked on an additional 55 yards and a touchdown through the air.
Of Barkley’s 32 touches against the Trojans, one launched his campaign for the 2017 Heisman Trophy, more than 11 months before it would be awarded.
Penn State took the field for the first time in the second half trailing USC 27-21. The first half was an eternal climb back to the surface after the Nittany Lions dug themselves into a 13-0 hole late in the first quarter.
A 24-yard touchdown run by Barkley and touchdown passes from Trace McSorley to Mike Gesicki and Chris Godwin cut the deficit to one possession at halftime. A three-and-out by USC to begin the second half gave Penn State the ball and the opportunities to both score its fourth consecutive touchdown and to take its first lead of the game.
One play and seventy-nine yards later, Barkley did both.
“It’s Barkley, trying to bounce it. He does escape. Saquon Barkley in the clear, still going. Saquoooon Barkley, all the way to the end zone.”ESPN’s Chris Fowler
On Penn State’s first play of the half, Barkley lined up to McSorley’s left and took the handoff five yards behind the line of scrimmage at the 16 yard line. Running full-speed up the middle, he cut to the right to dodge Uchenna Nwosu.
He paused for a split second to stare down an approaching Marvell Tell III before faking to his left and running parallel to the line of scrimmage. He cut downfield away from a diving Tell miss and met Cameron Smith and Adoree Jackson. DaeSean Hamilton laid a block on Smith that stymied his pursuit of Barkley, while the shifty running back ran right by Jackson, who stumbled trying to bring him down.
Barkley dodged that trio of Trojans only to be surrounded by another group of defenders. This time there were four. Jack Jones and Chris Hawkins cut him off from moving downfield and Jackson and Smith were closing in from behind.
Jones slipped and got in Jackson’s way. Hawkins overcommitted trying to bring down Barkley, who cut to the left. Smith seemed to get close enough to tackle Barkley but strangely never reached out for him.
As Barkley cut to the left yet again and across the middle of the field, Porter Gustin helplessly dove at his feet. He laid in Barkley’s dust while he ran in an open field toward to the end zone with five Trojans yards behind trying to chase him down. Jackson almost stopped Barkley inside the ten yard line, but a block from Godwin gave him a clear last few steps into the end zone.
Barkley’s escape from eight Trojans gave Penn State its first lead of the day and triggered a 28-point third quarter, which resulted in the Nittany Lions leading commandingly 49-35 with 15 minutes to play.
“Coach Franklin told me someone’s got to come up and make a play, and I kind of took that personally,” Barkley said in the postgame press conference.
Penn State’s sparkplug had given his team the lead during the biggest game of the season, as he had so many other times in the months leading up to the Rose Bowl — the 55-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to put a tight game against Temple out of reach, the walk-off touchdown against Minnesota, the pair of go-ahead, fourth-quarter touchdowns against Indiana, and the game-winning wheel-route touchdown in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Earlier in the game against USC, Barkley had rallied Penn State’s offense by picking up 40 of the team’s 70 yards on its first scoring possession, which he capped off with a 24-yard rush to cut into the Trojans’ early lead.
Had it not been for Darnold’s near-perfect fourth quarter where he was 10-for-10 with a touchdown pass, Barkley’s 79-yard touchdown run would have gone down in the same chapters of history books as Vince Young’s run to the corner and Sony Michel’s walk-off touchdown.
But alas, it’s overlooked in the same hidden trophy case as Jermaine Kearse’s juggling act catch on the sidelines and Larry Fitzgerald’s go-ahead touchdown.
September 23, 2017 at Iowa
Saquon Barkley had his Heisman moment on national television and appeared to have punched his ticket to New York City to accept his award in week four of his junior season.
Once the leaves changed, things began to take a turn from what had seemed so imminent in late September. But for a few awe-inspiring weeks, Saquon Barkley sat atop college football as the most dominant player in the nation.
He climbed onto that pedestal thanks to one storied night in Iowa City.
Lacking noticeable chinks in its armor, Penn State entered its conference opener at Iowa undefeated and having outscored opponents 141-14 in its first three games.
Iowa was the closest thing to a test on Penn State’s schedule until the end of October, and the Hawkeyes surely followed through, pushing the Nittany Lions to their limits…quite literally, to the final play.
Once again, it was Barkley stepping up and leading Penn State on a national stage.
Even though he scored only one touchdown, Barkley turned in one of the best game of his career offensively, doing everything he could to keep his team in a game it had no business winning.
Barkley amassed 358 all-purpose yards, including 211 on the ground, the most of his career. He set up each of Penn State’s five trips to the red zone. In those five trips, the Nittany Lions came away with just 19 points, six of them on Barkey’s third-quarter touchdown run.
His performance against Iowa was so extraordinary that he led the Big Ten in receiving yards and trailed Ohio State’s JK Dobbins, the conference’s leading rusher, by just two yards.
“I cannot imagine that there’s a better player in all of college football. I’ve been doing this for 23 years, and this guy is special,” Franklin said shortly after Juwan Johnson had hauled in McSorley’s game-winning touchdown pass on the final play of the game.
“Every time he touched the ball, I don’t care if it was a 20-yard run or an 8-yard run, it was something special, it really was. The guy is a great leader on the sideline, couldn’t be more positive, he’s tremendous.”
As impressive as Barkley’s statistics were, it was the standalone moments that made the Saturday night thriller CBS Sports’ fifth-best game of the season.
First, while running down the sideline, he narrowly tip-toed his way around All-American linebacker Josey Jewell and somehow stayed in bounds to pick up additional yards.
Then, he shaked-and-baked his way past Jewell, who fell trying to mirror Barkley’s agile footsteps.
And of course, he hurdled somebody. Only this time, he landed on his feet after flying over a diving Josh Jackson, stuck the landing while shaking off Amani Hooker, and picked up 10 yards.
But Barkley’s biggest touch of the day came on the team’s final drive. After Iowa took a 19-15 lead off a 35-yard touchdown run by Akrum Wadley with less than two minutes to play, Penn State took over at its own 20 yard line. Twelve excruciating plays later, the Nittany Lions regained the lead with one of the most memorable plays in Penn State history.
Before Johnson could haul in McSorley’s slant pass, Penn State had to force its way 80 yards down the field.
Barkley had two receptions on the game-winning drive. On third-and-ten with 1:01 to play, Barkley came across the middle to move the ball eight yards and set up a nail-biting fourth-down conversion throw to Saeed Blacknall. Three plays later, from the Iowa 24 yard line, Barkley caught a short pass from McSorley behind the line of scrimmage and ran down the sideline past a diving Jewell (Notice a trend?) to put the ball at the ten yard line.
Because this is Penn State football, it took the Nittany Lions four plays and until the final tick to put the ball into the end zone for the game-winner.
December 30, 2017 vs. Washington
Saquon Barkley had nothing to play for in the Fiesta Bowl and everything to lose. Penn State had missed another College Football Playoff. Whether he starred in or sat out against Washington, he’d still be a top-ten draft pick.
A freak injury like a torn ACL could’ve hurt his stock and cost him millions of dollars, similar to the fate of Michigan’s Jake Butt a year ago.
Nonetheless, Barkley broke the recent trend of top-rated draft prospects sitting out their meaningless bowl games. He laced up in the Blue and White one last time to face Washington. Fittingly, he ended his career with a win and one of his best performances — all while flashing his team-first focus.
Barkley, who split time with Miles Sanders, ran for 137 yards and two touchdowns and caught seven passes for another 38 yards. Of course, it wouldn’t have been a victory lap for Barkley if he didn’t embarass the opposing defense with a long touchdown run.
On second-and-nine from his own eight yard line, Barkley turned a run up the middle into a 92-yard touchdown, where only one Husky defender even touched him.
In a rare display of showmanship, Barkley taunted defenders on his way into the end zone, looking back at them with a cocky swagger only the nation’s most dynamic player could justify. He crossed the goal line with the same proud skip he used to celebrate his game-winning touchdown against Minnesota two years earlier.
The touchdown came at a pivotal point in the game. Backed up near their own end zone, the Nittany Lions held onto a two-possession lead that a miscue or three-and-out could’ve easily trimmed in half. In a blink of an eye, Barkley took the ball the length of the field and blew the score open to 28-7.
Although at the time the score seemed to drive a nail into the Huskies’ coffin, a comeback attempt fueled by Jake Browning and Miles Gaskin cut into the once-large Nittany Lion lead. The touchdown that once seemed like just an exclamation point on Barkley’s career ended up being one of the key difference-makers in a New Years Six bowl win, a big first for Franklin.
Until his final days as a collegiate athlete, it was always all about his team. Even after the game, Barkley selflessly kept his team in the limelight and deflected the personalized attention. Although his decision about entering the draft had likely been made weeks earlier, he refused to let the impending news of declaring for the NFL Draft overshadow the Nittany Lions’ thrilling bowl win.
He eventually announced his intention to forego his senior season, as expected, about 24 hours after the Fiesta Bowl wrapped up.
Although Barkley turned down the opportunity to compete for Penn State for one last season, it isn’t a total loss the Nittany Lions.
Barkley will be the first player under Franklin to be drafted in the first round and the first Penn State player to go in the first round since the Sandusky Scandal. Jared Odrick was the last Nittany Lion to do so in 2010. He will also almost assuredly be the highest-selected player since Courtney Brown and Lavar Arrington went No. 1 and No. 2 in 2000.
Although stalwarts like Alabama, Oklahoma, and Texas A&M regularly churn out top-five picks, Barkley is the first of many multi-million-dollar feathers in James Franklin’s hat. As he continues to develop at the next level and meet the gargantuan expectations he assumed, he’ll be a pioneer for the new era of Penn State football.
And that might just be the most fitting way for him to go out.