UNIVERSITY PARK, PA. — Saquon Barkley jogged onto the field during player introductions Saturday afternoon to a rousing ovation at Beaver Stadium, but Penn State’s Heisman Trophy candidate didn’t do much more running in the first half of a 33-14 win against Pittsburgh.
The Panthers’ defense instead rendered the junior tailback with uncommon strength and speed virtually incidental, leaving NFL scouts observing from the press box mighty curious about when last season’s Big Ten offensive player of the year would begin to get on track.
Then Barkley ran for 17 and 11 yards on the first two snaps of the third quarter, and the Nittany Lions’ workhorse got his hands on the ball with much greater frequency the rest of the way.
Barkley had five carries and one catch for 22 total yards before halftime but eclipsed that meager total with one reception on Penn State’s second series in the second half, when he collected quarterback Trace McSorley’s pass and turned it into a 46-yard touchdown. Had any in the announced crowd of 109,898 glanced away from the proceedings, they might have missed the game-altering sequence given Barkley’s sprinter speed.
Barkley drew a mismatch when he ended up one-on-one with Pittsburgh linebacker Saleem Brightwell, who got turned around twice trying to stay in coverage. Barkley has been hand-timed at 4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and Brightwell stood no chance on the play that unfolded in the middle of the field.
Penn State never looked back after that touchdown, which opened an 18-point margin.
“I feel like whenever he touches the ball, he can create an explosive play,” Nittany Lions Coach James Franklin said of Barkley, who stands a chiseled 5 feet 11 and 230 pounds.
Pure power carried Barkley into the end zone on the first play of the fourth quarter with Penn State facing second and goal from the 8. Barkley took the handoff around the left side and barreled over multiple defenders to reach the end zone and provide a 28-6 advantage.
The punishing run left none of Barkley’s teammates surprised. Many of them had witnessed Barkley complete a power-clean lift of 405 pounds over the summer to set a school record. For good measure, he squatted 525 pounds and bench-pressed 405.
The herculean feats of strength along with the hashtag “HappyValleyHeisman” are featured on a Penn State splash page. Barkley is seeking to become the second Heisman winner in program history after John Cappelletti in 1973.
Barkley finished with 133 yards from scrimmage on 18 touches against the Panthers. In 27 career games at Penn State, Barkley has scored at least two touchdowns 10 times.
“That’s the mind-set you have to have,” Barkley said. “You have to believe in yourself. I thought [the reception in the third quarter] was going to be a touchdown when I saw the one-on-one route. I believe in Trace placing a great ball. I believe in JoeMo [offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead] making the right call, and I believe in O-line blocking right.
“And you’ve got to believe in yourself making the catch.”
Barkley’s offensive mates helped carry Penn State in the first half, most notably McSorley and tight end Mike Gesicki, regarded as perhaps the most skilled at his position in the country.
The Nittany Lions needed just 2:47 combined in two possessions to take a 14-0 lead. The first touchdown required eight seconds and came on McSorley’s eight-yard pass on first and goal to Gesicki with 12:53 left in the first quarter. The Nittany Lions had taken over deep in Pittsburgh territory when senior cornerback Grant Haley returned an interception 42 yards from midfield.
McSorley connected with Gesicki for 10 yards on the next touchdown. Included in that drive was a 36-yard yard keeper from McSorley for the longest run of his career. The Panthers also lent a hand on the series by jumping offside on third and seven from the Pitt 15, setting up the scoring throw.
McSorley, who won three state titles at Briar Woods High in Ashburn, finished 15-for-28 passing for 164 yards and three touchdowns. Gesicki had four receptions for 39 yards and the two touchdowns on a day when Penn State was able to score at least 33 points for a ninth consecutive game despite 34 fewer snaps than its contentious instate rival.
Last week, Penn State throttled Akron, 52-0, behind Barkley’s 172 rushing yards and two touchdowns before he sat out the entire fourth quarter.
“It just gives the offense confidence,” Barkley said. “When you look to your left and your right and you’ve got playmakers, and especially when you’ve got a guy like Trace McSorley in the backfield with you, you’re confident in each other, and you’re confident at any given moment the play can open up.”
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