EAST LANSING, Mich. — When Saquon Barkley has the ball in his hands, all eyes are on him. That’s why you’d be hard-pressed to find many people in the country who don’t think he’s a candidate for the Heisman.
But when the Nittany Lions lose — as they have two weeks in a row after falling, 27-24, to No. 24 Michigan State on Saturday — it’s easy to take a closer look at Barkley and the rest of the offense.
Saturday’s game against Michigan State was the most recent example, as Barkley struggled to get anything going on the ground.
The seventh-ranked Nittany Lions went to their passing game on a majority of plays against the Spartans — who tend to stack the box. When they did give it to Barkley, though, there was no running room to be had. It resulted in Barkley rushing for 0 yards on six carries in the first half.
The junior’s production picked up a bit, as he ripped off a 38-yard carry on Penn State’s first drive of the second half to bring his total to 63 on the day. For Nittany Lions’ coach James Franklin, though, that’s not good enough.
“Saquon didn’t struggle today,” Franklin said. “Our offense struggled at times today, and we haven’t been running the ball consistently this year.”
The bit of success Penn State did have on the ground came when they challenged the edges of the Michigan State defense. On the first offensive play of the second half, quarterback Trace McSorley tossed the ball to Barkley out wide to his left. Barkley nearly turned the corner but was tripped up after a three-yard gain.
But the Nittany Lions stuck with it. On the very next play, they ran the exact same look to the other side. This time, the blocking on the edge was better, and Barkley showed the burst we're used to seeing, sprinting up the Penn State sideline.
“In the first half, we saw a couple looks — blitzing inside — and thought that we could get to the perimeter, so that’s what we started doing.” sophomore center Connor McGovern said.
For a moment, it seemed like those plays loosened up the Spartan defense. On Barkley’s next run, he gashed Michigan State for seven yards right up the middle.
That success didn’t last long, though. Michigan State and its fourth-best rushing defense in the country tightened down and frustrated the Nittany Lion rushing attack the rest of the night.
“It’s Michigan State,” Barkley said. “They’re well-coached, they’re hard-nosed, they fly to the ball, they tackle very well. We started off slow in the run game. Second half we started getting going, the O-line got a lot of movement, I was able to take what the defense gave me, and the run game just got finally able to make plays. It was a good game, but we came up short.”
In Franklin’s eyes, that hard-nosed attitude is exactly what separates their rush defense from the Penn State rush offense, and that’s something he’s determined to change for the future.
“If we’ve got to go back to the old ‘inside drill,’ and just do that every single day of practice, that’s what we’re gonna do,” Franklin said. “We’re gonna become more of a hard-nosed team up front on both sides of the ball — offense and defense. Tight end, offensive line, running backs, everybody. We’re gonna be more physical up front, and we’re not right now.”