Penn State got a much-needed win Saturday, bouncing back from that embarrassing season-opening loss to Temple with a 13-point win over Buffalo.
But while Christian Hackenberg and the Nittany Lions' passing attack continues to struggle — the projected first-round pick didn't help his draft stock with a 128-yard day against Buffalo — there's suddenly new hope for a Penn State offense that's yet to take off since James Franklin took over.
Freshman running back Saquon Barkley carried the ball just 12 times but amassed 115 yards and scored a touchdown, also popping eyes with a hurdle of a Buffalo defender on a big run.
Penn State's rushing attack was unable to do much last season, ranking dead last in the Big Ten with an average of just 101.9 rushing yards per game. And 2015 hasn't gotten off to a great start, either. The Lions rank 13th in the conference after averaging 138.5 rushing yards in the first two games this season.
Akeel Lynch, the Lions starting running back, went for 78 yards on 10 carries against Temple and 46 yards on 19 carries against Buffalo.
Enter Barkley, who was a four-star running back out of high school, ranked the No. 11 back in the Class of 2015. He matched that hype with production Saturday, coming on strong in the second half with back-to-back rushes for 33 and 17 yards to drive the Lions deep into Buffalo territory on a drive that ended in a touchdown. He rushed for 18 yards on a drive that ended in his first career touchdown. And he added 33 more yards on the Lions' last drive of the game.
Oh, and that hurdle.
HURDLE ALERT! @PennStateFBall RB Saquon Barkley hurdles the Buffalo defender, helping set up Hamilton's TD. http://t.co/z3I0Qa4asv
— Penn State on BTN (@PennStateOnBTN) September 12, 2015
"Saquon Barkley, who I thought gave us a spark, came in as a freshman and did some exciting things," head coach James Franklin said after the game. "Had 115 yards, most for a true freshman since Silas Redd (in 2011). Before Saquon got here he used to hurdle people all the time in high school, and he said 'I’m not going to do that in college.' I said that doesn’t make sense because in high school it’s illegal to hurdle people and it’s legal in college.
"I’m glad that he brought that back out of his bag of tricks."
Barkley's performance earned him Big Ten Co-Freshman of the Week honors Monday.
And he wasn't the only freshman making big plays in the Penn State running game, either, as wide receiver Brandon Polk took three handoffs and went a combined 45 yards, including a long 22-yard touchdown run and another for 20 yards.
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Barkley will obviously need to show he can do this on a consistent basis, and there's no expectation that he'll instantaneously replace Lynch at the top of the depth chart. Ideally, Lynch will be able to gain some traction and Penn State could use both backs on a regular basis. That of course also hinges on the Lions' offensive line, which hasn't showed much improvement early on this year after a miserable 2014.
But for an offense stuck in the mud — Penn State still accumulated just 328 total yards against a MAC team that finished 5-6 last season — any sign of explosiveness is a welcome one.
"I think we're going to continue to develop Saquon and his ability to make people miss and break tackles. You guys watch him as a runner, he’s making people miss but he’s also breaking tackles, and you don’t get that kind of combination in a freshman. They’re usually one or the other," Franklin said. "Again, we're going to need to develop him, and he’s going to have a significant role in our team. He showed those things at camp, during in practice and he showed it in the game. His confidence will continue to grow, and the O-line will continue to grow.
"When you have a guy making plays like that, who is able to make something happen, guys block better. It has that type of impact on everybody."