james franklin

Hunt for clues about Saquon Barkley's future at Penn State is on

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Hunt for clues about Saquon Barkley's future at Penn State is on

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- For months now, everyone has been seeking clues as to what Saquon Barkley’s intentions beyond this season might be, and the detective work continued Saturday.

Is Penn State’s prized junior running back headed to the NFL after this season? Is he even going to play in the Nittany Lions’ bowl game?

The latter question was answered in the affirmative after Barkley generated 224 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns in PSU’s 56-44 defeat of Nebraska: He’s a go for whatever bowl the No. 10 Lions, now 9-2, find themselves in.

Still TBA beyond that. While coach James Franklin advised Barkley before the season as to what he should do, Franklin wouldn’t divulge the particulars of that conversation. (You’re shocked, I’m sure.) And Barkley said he still wants to talk to his family before he decides whether or not to declare for next spring’s draft.

So we wait. And we hunt for clues.

Like when Franklin said he was “blessed to have coached” Barkley — past tense — what did that mean?

Uh, nothing, Franklin said though he did launch into a monologue about advising Barkley and advising players in general.

“What I try to do for all of my players is give them advice that I would give my son,” he said. “If I feel like they should come back to school to finish their degree and have the opportunity to go on and get one more season of development, and then go to the NFL, I tell them that. If I think they should leave early, then I tell them that as well.”

It’s quite simple, in his mind.

“If IBM came to our computer engineering department and offered a junior a $12 million contract, they’d be gone,” Franklin said. “So I give these guys information all the time based on the entire picture -- what their future is like, where they’re at academically.”

Which sounded like a hint as to what he might have told Barkley, all those months ago. But again, who knows?

What we do know is that Barkley is a likely top-five pick. And while he has performed unevenly this season through no fault of his own (i.e., the offensive line has been surprisingly poor), he scored on a 65-yard run three plays into Saturday’s game, went over 100 yards for the game (and 1,000 for the season) when he broke off a 30-yard run on the final play of the first quarter and finished the half with 142 yards and three TDs.

The Lions were up 42-10 at that point. Barkley's final totals were 17 carries for 158 yards and three TDs, and six catches for 66 yards. He became just the second player in program history to surpass 1,000 in three straight seasons — Evan Royster was the other — and overtook Lydell Mitchell for most career rushing TDs; Barkley now has 39.

And that's all with two games remaining this season.

Yes, definitely two — at Maryland in next week’s regular-season finale, and then the bowl, wherever that may be.

Again, there were clues as far back as May that Barkley might follow in the footsteps of two other NFL-bound running backs, LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, who skipped bowl games last year to prepare for the draft. Fournette was taken fourth overall by Jacksonville and McCaffery was taken eighth overall by Carolina

In a Sports Illustrated profile by Pete Thamel, Barkley was quoted as saying the following: “I would have a hard time doing it (i.e., skipping a bowl), but I’m not going to sit here and say I would never do it. I don’t know. I could be in a situation next year where I have close to two broken ankles, God forbid, or something going on in my upper body, and I can’t play in a game if I’m considering playing in the NFL.”

But he said Saturday he definitely plans to play, barring the unforeseen.

“I understand why some other players have not played in a bowl game,” he said. “I’m different from Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey. … Our situations are different.”

Barkley admitted that he did get “a little emotional” Saturday, not so much because it was his final home game but because it was the last time he would be playing alongside the seniors in Beaver Stadium — “no matter what happens.”

No clues there, then. His play, however, would appear to offer the biggest clue of all and leaves little reason for doubt.

Why, at this point, should the sporting equivalent of IBM have to wait any longer?

After gut-punch losses, No. 14 Penn State overcomes slow start to beat Rutgers

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After gut-punch losses, No. 14 Penn State overcomes slow start to beat Rutgers

BOX SCORE

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Hangovers? That was apparently something for the folks in the Beaver Stadium parking lots to worry about. Penn State coach James Franklin wasn’t interested in discussing whether his team might have been in the throes of one Saturday afternoon, when it started slowly and then slogged to a workmanlike 35-6 homecoming victory over Rutgers (see observations).

Never mind that the 14th-ranked Lions were coming off back-to-back gut-punch losses, at Ohio State and Michigan State. Never mind that the season’s course appears to be set, that there is a certain resignation about what this outfit, now 8-2, might be able to accomplish.

He was more interested in recalibrating everybody’s sights, making them understand there is still much that can be salvaged, even if a return trip to the Big Ten championship game is a long shot, a berth in the College Football Playoff a near impossibility.

“I think,” he began, “we made progress, and we were able to get a fairly convincing win against a program on the rise.”

Well, yeah, kinda. Rutgers came in with three victories in its last four games and overall has won twice as often as it had while going 2-10 last year. Then the Scarlet Knights moved to a 6-0 lead after a quarter, in part because none of the Lions elected to field the opening kickoff, before PSU yawned, stretched and made its appointed rounds.

Trace McSorley threw for two touchdowns and ran for one. Saquon Barkley, limited to a season-low 35 yards on the ground, nonetheless rushed for two TDs of his own. And later he addressed the season’s expectations, as opposed to the grim realities.

“I visualized going undefeated,” he said. “I visualized everything. But you only get to control what you can control.”

And the games in Columbus and East Lansing slipped through their fingers, in large part because they are lacking on both lines — Franklin went so far as to call their offense “too finesse” after the MSU loss — but also because of a blocked punt here, a roughing-the-passer penalty there, and few dozen completions by J.T. Barrett and Brian Lewerke.

Tough to adjust one’s focus after all that. But outwardly, at least, they are being brave in the attempt.

“We’re 8-2 right now,” Barkley said. “We hold ourselves to such a high standard that everyone thinks this is a bad season. There’s multiple teams that would beg and wish and dream to be in the position we are.”

A 10-2 regular-season finish is still possible. So too is a berth in a New Year’s Day bowl. Scant consolation, maybe, since the Lions were No. 2 in the country heading into the Ohio State game, but consolation nonetheless.

“We’re 8-2, top 15 team in the country,” Barkley said again, “and everyone’s like the season’s going to crap, which realistically it’s not. We all wanted to have an undefeated season, but we didn’t. We lost two games. But now that’s all behind us. All you can really focus on is the last three games that we have and (go about) doing what you can do to win those games.”

No surprise, then, that Barkley fended off questions about his immediate and long-term future — that he would say neither whether he planned to declare for the draft (as expected) nor whether he planned to sit out the bowl game, as two NFL-bound backs, LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, did a year ago.

That’s a discussion for another time, he said, in both cases. More pressing now is whether the Lions can ever knock anybody off the ball. Barkley, working behind a line minus injured tackle Ryan Bates for the second straight week, found little traction against Rutgers. And over the last three weeks, he has managed 141 yards on 49 carries, while seeing his Heisman chances evaporate.

Time and again Franklin has said his team needs to be more physical — on both sides of the ball, but particularly on offense. And when asked whether any strides had been made in that regard Saturday, he didn’t exactly offer a ringing endorsement.

“I think a little bit,” he said, “but I still think that’s an area that we can get better in.”

Barkley’s take on Franklin’s week-old assessment?

“‘Finesse’ means we’re trying to be too flashy and got to grind out the yards and be a little more gritty,” he said. “That’s what I think of when I think ‘finesse.’ ”

He too thought some progress had been made. Baby steps, anyway.

Same for the recalibration process, the resetting of goals. One would think, after all, that the hangover cannot last forever, despite all appearances to the contrary.

Even Heisman hopeful Saquon Barkley can't save No. 7 Penn State

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Even Heisman hopeful Saquon Barkley can't save No. 7 Penn State

BOX SCORE

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.”