STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Saquon Barkley hung another masterpiece Saturday but were you to browse the rest of the gallery, you might have found scaffolding and half-completed pen-and-inks.
Because even at 3-0, even with a No. 4 national ranking, there is still a work-in-progress feel to this Penn State team.
Is that nitpicking? Is that the equivalent of searching for a smudge on the Mona Lisa?
Not at all. Not if you listen to the principals.
Barkley turned a nothing pass into an 85-yard work of art in the first quarter of Saturday’s 56-0 embarrassment of Georgia State. The junior running back is a transcendent player, a Heisman hopeful, a certain early NFL draft pick.
And while coach James Franklin thought his team played a complete game against the overmatched Panthers (something he also said after a season-opening 52-0 rout of Akron), he did raise some questions.
He said the Lions can be better along both lines — that they can do a better job running the ball and stopping the run, staples in any era. He might have added that his receiving corps could be a little more productive, his quarterback a little more consistent, his guys a little less dependent on Barkley.
And indeed they will have to be, with the Big Ten season now upon them. PSU opens at Iowa next Saturday night.
“We knew we were dangerous (coming into the season),” safety Marcus Allen said, “but I think we see we can be at an elite status and we can really be that elite team.”
And how do they get there?
“Hard work,” he said. “Hard work and dedication.”
Suffice it to say, then, that the non-conference portion of their season was a starting point, that they applied the first brush strokes to their self-portrait.
“This is probably our best week of preparation, our most complete week,” quarterback Trace McSorley said.
And, he added, it is “a huge thing” to have that at this point.
Now the Lions just have to repeat it nine more times if they are to repeat as Big Ten champion.
McSorley was admittedly displeased with his play in last Saturday’s 33-14 victory over Pitt and spent the practice week smoothing out his mechanics. The result was an 18-for-23, 309-yard, four-touchdown performance. He also ran for a score.
He still appears to be working things out with a revamped receiving corps, which, since last season, has lost its best wideout, Chris Godwin, to the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Juwan Johnson is still finding his way after a strong offseason. DeAndre Thompkins has made more of an impact as a punt returner. Saeed Blacknall, the hero of last year’s Big Ten championship game, registered his first catches of the fall (including a TD) Saturday.
And so on.
At least tight end Mike Gesicki is still around, and Barkley always seems to be everywhere McSorley needs him to be.
Which brings us to the 85-yard play. With PSU up 7-0 and facing 3rd-and-12 from its own 15, McSorley rolled right. Barkley was just a few yards in front of him and looking back at his QB, but for some reason, slid in the opposite direction, from the right flat to the left.
“It was kind of just a feel,” Barkley said. “I kind of thought that Trace was going to lose me and that me sliding would help.”
McSorley wound up firing a five-yard pass across his body to Barkley, and then the fun began. He juked one guy, outran just about everybody else down the sideline, cut back, picked up a block from wide receiver Brandon Polk and, before long, was standing in the end zone.
Asked to explain all that, Barkley said, “It just happens naturally. It’s kind of a reaction.”
Franklin reacted by saying that he “can’t imagine there is a more explosive, dangerous player in space” than Barkley, and added that his star was almost as excited about backup Nick Eury getting a carry late in the game as he was his own play.
“He is a special guy in a lot of different ways,” Franklin said. “I stopped being surprised or amazed a while ago with him.”
Barkley, who played two and a half quarters, finished with 226 all-purpose yards — 142 on four receptions, 47 on 10 rushes and a 37-yard kickoff return. He also believes he has more to provide.
“I feel faster (than in past years),” he said, “but I still feel like there’s room to improve. I feel like I can find a way to get another gear.”
The team as a whole will need to do that, too.
It’s the only way this season might end up being suitable for framing.