After stumbling upon an offensive spark plug in true freshman running back Saquon Barkley, an injury to the exciting young ball-carrier sent the Penn State offense crashing back down to Earth.
It's possible Barkley — along with veteran running back Akeel Lynch — could miss a second straight game when Penn State hosts Indiana on Saturday. Barkley and Lynch, who both sat out of last weekend’s win over Army, were left off the Nittany Lions’ depth chart when it was released Tuesday.
Barkley had two big performances in wins over Buffalo and Rutgers. Against Buffalo, he carried the ball 12 times for 115 yards and a touchdown. Against Rutgers, he had 21 carries for 195 yards and two touchdowns. Even before leaving Penn State’s win over San Diego State with an injury, Barkley rushed eight times for 62 yards and had a 22-yard receiving touchdown.
And Lynch has fared well, at times, too. He ran for 120 yards and a touchdown against Rutgers and had at least 10 carries in each of the team’s first four games.
Without Barkley and Lynch against Army, though, Penn State mustered just 20 points (this after averaging more than 30 in the three previous games) and 264 total yards, just 108 of which came on the ground. It meant a narrow 20-14 win over the Black Knights.
The fact that the absence of Barkley, a true freshman, can so dramatically change the fortunes of the offense is an illustration of a big problem for Penn State: Outside of this one player, the offense still is struggling to function. It was the case last season, and it’s the case again this season, with the Lions ranking 116th in the FBS in total offense (329.2 total yards per game). Only one other Power 5 conference team (Missouri) ranks lower.
That low number is fueled mostly by an ineffective passing offense, which is averaging just 171.2 yards per game. Now, that’s not even last or second to last in the Big Ten, with Maryland and Northwestern averaging fewer, but it’s hardly good. Christian Hackenberg, the junior quarterback who’s supposed to have the stuff that could make him a No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, hasn’t performed up to expectations over the past two seasons.
It’s why Barkley’s emergence was such a positive thing. Unfortunately, an injury has temporarily sent Penn State back to survival mode. The defense, it should be pointed out, is still excellent, ranking 15th in the country.
The replacement backs for Barkley and Lynch are all freshmen, too. While that's a function of the roster, not preference, it throws another wrench into things offensively.
“I don't know what else to do,” Franklin said during his weekly press conference. “You say you may be getting too dependent on a freshman runner, that's all we have are freshmen runners, so I'm not sure what the other option is. ... That's where we are. So, yeah, we are dependent. Has Saquon been exciting this year? No doubt about it, no doubt about it, he's been fun to watch.
“I see Nick Scott doing nice things, I see Mark Allen starting to do some nice things, Johnathan Thomas for playing for the first time, but, yeah, are we dependent on freshmen in our running game? Yeah, this is all we have since Akeel has been out. Hopefully we can get him back and that brings more veteran leadership to us, but, yes.”
It all adds up to Penn State potentially not being able to keep up with Indiana. The high-octane Hoosiers are dealing with their own injuries right now — quarterback Nate Sudfeld and running back Jordan Howard were both knocked out of last weekend’s game and their status is unknown for Saturday — but still rank in the top 20 in the country in total offense (a hair under 500 yards a game). They average 36 points a game. They’re fresh off a near upset of No. 1 Ohio State, a 34-27 loss that had the Hoosiers with goal to go in the final seconds.
It all adds up to a real worry that, without Barkley, the Lions might simply not be able to keep up.
The Penn State offense seems to have one of two things to hope for right now: Hope that Hackenberg can figure things out, or hope that Barkley heals fast.