EVANSTON, Ill. - Saquon Barkley is taking a big-picture approach.
The alternative for the Nittany Lion star running back likely doesn’t provide much choice. Yet after a grind of a performance in which he finished with two touchdowns and 75 yards on 16 carries on the ground Saturday, Barkley felt a satisfaction of a win that has become familiar this season.
Against a Northwestern defense determined at all costs to prevent him from finding any room to run, Barkley’s first half was a net negative affair. In the first quarter, he had carries of 2, 8, -3, -4, and -2 yards, followed by a second quarter with carries of -6, 4, and 0 yards for a total of moving 2 yards backwards.
Greeted by reporters following his Nittany Lions’ 31-7 win, the Heisman hopeful didn’t seem to mind.
“It's part of football. It's part of the running game. It's part of being a running back,” he explained. “You know a lot of teams are going to key on you. A lot of teams have been keying on our run game in recent weeks trying to stop the run.
“But if you try to stop the run we have so many other weapons. Like I've been saying before, we have a great offensive coordinator, a great offensive staff and a great offensive team, especially with a great defense. Our special teams is playing on a high cylinder too. If we can continue to play on a high cylinder in all three phases of the game, we'll continue to succeed.”
And that, as Barkley maintained that the height of his national Heisman hype following his stunning performance at Iowa, is all that has really mattered to him. Saturday afternoon in his response to a Northwestern defensive effort that held him to under 100 in all-purpose yardage for the first time this season, Barkley proved it.
According to Lions’ head coach James Franklin, the dividends paid by Barkley’s mere presence go well beyond the times he breaks off the highlight reel plays that have come to define his career at Penn State. In fact, Franklin went so far as to say that the entire program understands that, in a situation where teams have to make a choice as to which poison to swallow on a weekly basis, they’re choosing to not allow Barkley to be that poison.
And Barkley, he said, simply doesn’t let it get to him.
“Saquon doesn't get frustrated. You never see bad body language, you never see him coming to the sideline, you never see him fussing at the O-line,” Franklin said, noting how frequently in college football backs behave themselves in just such a way. “We don't do that but it starts with him. He's never once asked for the ball more. He's never said give me more opportunities, give me more touches. Never once. He's never fussed at his linemen. It's all be positive support. He's never fussed at the coaches, he's never fussed at anybody.
“He knows that if he stays patient and sticks with what we do he is plays will come and if they don’t, someone else will make plays to allow us to a win. He's an unselfish guy who gets the big picture in a circumstance that probably most guys wouldn't. A lot of attention is on Saquon Barkley right now and Saquon Barkley's focus and attention is on the team.”
That mindset is likely also why Barkley is unwilling to serve up even the modest critiques on the offensive line in front of him that Franklin has willingly doled out the past few weeks.
Coming out of an Indiana game in which Franklin cited the missing fractions of seconds of blocking up front he saw on film necessary to spring Barkley or McSorley on the ground, Barkley chose instead to acknowledge another sort of reality. Bottom line, he said, the other guys are trying too.
“I wouldn't say the gaps are closing because of the O-line,” he said. “You have to give credit. I mean, it's college football guys. Division I football. The same way we prepare for them, they prepare for us. They've been doing a lot of things.
“A lot of teams have been stealing a lot of things from other teams, defensive scheme-wise. That was the motto of the week: strain. Not only the offensive line, myself, Trace, the whole team. We have to strain and find a way to win. That was the motto, the goal of the week to come out 1-0 and we were able to do that.”
Having achieved their goal, the NIttany Lions enter their midseason bye week with an unbeaten record and an opportunity to clean up some of the trouble spots that have appeared to this point.
But Barkley, still among the Big Ten leaders in rushing yards, receptions, receiving yards, kick returns, and No. 1 in all-purpose yards, has found plenty to enjoy about his team with or without those individual numbers.
“It makes me happy,” said Barkley. “The team is succeeding. The offense is succeeding and we're moving the ball. We're not naive. We know a lot of teams are going to try to stop the run. It is what it is though. We have to continue to find a way to win.”