Heisman candidate Saquon Barkley has Penn State's sights set on College Football Playoff

Heisman candidate Saquon Barkley has Penn State's sights set on College Football Playoff

As if to prove that all discussions of Penn State begin and end with Saquon Barkley, quarterback Trace McSorley was on Wednesday discussing the mindset the No. 6 Nittany Lions carry into their season, which begins when Akron visits Saturday at noon.

“We have an understanding kind of as a team what standard we want to work to every day,” McSorley said.

He admitted he has “a little bit of a perfectionist thing,” but added that that is not uncommon on a team that achieved some of its goals while going 11-3 last year (i.e., a Big Ten championship) but not others (it was denied a spot in the College Football Playoff).

So the Lions are aiming high, striving for something more. And, McSorley said, “a lot of that comes from Saquon.”

In two years in Happy Valley, Barkley has established himself as one of the finest running backs in school history, and one of the finest players in the country. Last year he rushed for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns, while also catching 28 passes for 402 yards and four scores.

The capper was a 194-yard rushing performance in a 52-49 Rose Bowl loss to USC. It was highlighted by a 79-yard TD gallop in the third quarter on which Barkley started right, stepped through a tackle, turned the corner, cut back, cut back some more (one Trojan, cornerback Jack Jones, fell on his backside as Barkley did so) and then turned on the jets.

That electric burst jump-started his campaign for this year’s Heisman, but his hard-driving ways appear to be hardwired within the team.

“We want to build off last year,” McSorley said.

The preseason, coach James Franklin said, featured “probably the most consistent training camp that I've been associated with.” He and his assistants have steadily restocked the roster in the years since NCAA sanctions left PSU threadbare following the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal. And now the Lions are three-deep everywhere, in players who are either proven or promising.

As a result, McSorley said, “there’s a lot of competition, a lot of guys pushing each other (in practice).”

But again, it all starts with Saquon. While his Trojan tour de force has drawn its share of YouTube attention, so too have his weight-room feats. He goes 5-11 and 230 pounds, but has power-cleaned 405, a program record, and squatted 600. And at the team’s annual Lift for Life workout in mid-July, he bench-pressed 225 pounds 30 times, a number that would have equaled the best mark by a back at last year’s NFL Scouting Combine.

It has reached the point, strength and conditioning coach Dwight Galt said, where he and his staff have to tell Barkley to gear back.

Not his style, though. In July ESPN.com’s Bruce Feldman placed him atop his list of “Feldman’s Freaks,” the sport’s foremost athletes. Earlier, CBSSports.com declared Barkley the nation’s most irreplaceable player, and Sports on Earth decreed he was the top back.

Barkley has also been featured in ESPN the Magazine and SI.com; in the latter piece running backs coach Charles Huff mentioned him in the same breath as Bo Jackson, Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell mentioned him in the same breath as Ezekiel Elliott and Franklin mentioned him in the same breath as … Frankenstein.

It is widely believed that Barkley, a junior, will declare for the NFL draft after this season — on Media Day in early August, he stiff-armed a question about his intentions as if it were a walk-on cornerback — and not long ago Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller quoted a “high-level” NFL executive as saying that Barkley could be the best running back drafted in the last decade.

But that’s another discussion for another day. Same with the whole Heisman deal.

“To even be mentioned in that category is an honor,” he said back on Media Day. “When that pops up to me, I really don’t get too much of a rush on it because I’m really focused on the season and taking it day by day. And focusing on the team and trying to win every single game possible and just trying to be a better player and a better person and a better leader every single day.”

McSorley has likewise attracted some Heisman attention, after setting school single-season records for passing yardage (3,614), touchdowns (29) and total offense (3,979) in his first year as a starter. He completed TD throws to 10 different receivers, hit 64 attempts of 20 yards or more and has connected for at least one score in each of his last 15 games.

There are eight other starters back on offense. There are, in fact, six offensive linemen in the program with starting experience, and the receiving corps appears to be deep enough to weather the loss of Chris Godwin, who was taken in the third round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Tight end Mike Gesicki, like Barkley a preseason All-American, is a particular threat.

There are six returnees on defense, the best of whom are middle linebacker Jason Cabinda and safety Marcus Allen. Allen, a senior who has somehow not yet recorded a career interception, made 110 tackles last year to become the first player at his position to lead the team in that category since 2002. Cabinda made 81 stops despite missing five games with a broken thumb.

There are some holes to fill, to be sure. But again, this is a deep team.

Also a driven one.

“If you think what you’re doing now is enough,” McSorley said, “it’s not.”

Thank Barkley for that approach. Among other things.

Penn State tops Utah to win NIT championship

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Penn State tops Utah to win NIT championship

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK -- Flavor Flav had his red cap flipped backward as he pulled out his iPhone on the Madison Square Garden court. Flav held the camera steady and recorded cousin Shep Garner clip the final strands of the championship net and wave it toward the Penn State die-hards.

Flav's T-shirt at the NIT said it all for the Nittany Lions: Believe the hype!

Garner hit the 3-pointer that brought rapper and reality star Flavor Flav to his feet and helped send Penn State on its way to an NIT title in an 82-66 victory over Utah on Thursday night.

The fourth-seeded Nittany Lions (26-13) also knocked off No. 1 seed Notre Dame in the tournament en route to winning their first NIT title since 2009.

"This means the whole world to me right now ," Flavor Flav said.

They were pretty pumped in Happy Valley, too.

"I think we set the standard," Garner said. "We preach defense and rebounding, but now we have something we can always go to. We won something. We're champions."

Flavor Flav, member of the seminal `80s rap group Public Enemy, sang along to "Fight the Power" as it blasted in the Garden and had the PSU student section chanting "Flav! Flav! Flav!" as the Nittany Lions pulled away for a program-defining championship under coach Pat Chambers.

Lamar Stevens scored 28 points, Josh Reaves had 18 and Tony Carr had 15 points and 14 assists for Penn State.

Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center has a long-standing reputation as one of the dreariest arenas in college basketball. Penn State fans, from rappers to silver-haired alumni, packed the Garden all the way to the last row of the upper deck.

Penn State football coach James Franklin, who led the program to a Pinstripe Bowl victory in 2014, was in the house. Flavor Flav stole the show a few rows behind the PSU bench. Wearing a T-shirt that read "33 Shep Garner," Flavor Flav danced all night in his seat. Flavor Flav popped his T-shirt and raised the roof in the same arena where Public Enemy once tore down the house.

"I think we've proven to teams across the country that Penn State basketball is here to stay," Chambers said.

The clutch moment came in the third quarter when Garner -- who became Penn State's career 3-point leader in the tournament run -- hit a 3 for his first basket of the game and a 49-41 lead that had the fans going wild.

"To see my cousin break records, win trophies, all that, he deserves it," Flavor Flav said. "The whole team deserves it."

Reaves hit a crashing layup on a three-point play that stretched the lead to 11 and Stevens wagged his tongue toward the PSU fans on a jumper that helped blow open the game.

Flavor Flav raised an arm in the air when Garner sank a 3 early in the fourth for a 68-49 edge that all but put this one away.

The final minutes certainly put some flava in your ear -- half the MSG crowd chanted "We Are!" and the other half bellowed "Penn State!"

Yeah, boy!

Sedrick Barefield hit six 3s and scored 22 points for second-seeded Utah (23-12).

"You're always kind of watching the NIT and maybe you think of it as the consolation prize or whatever," Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "They have no idea how cool this was for us."

Big picture
Utah: David Collette, Justin Bibbins and Tyler Rawson are among the seniors moving on. ... Bibbins scored 15 points.

Penn State: Stevens reached 1,000 career points was named most outstanding player. ... Chambers, a former assistant coach under Jay Wright at Villanova, took over in 2011 and has struggled to find any kind of regular success. The Nittany Lions have never made the NCAA Tournament under Chambers and they'll have just their second winning record in seven seasons. But Penn State's 26 wins are second-highest in program history. The Nittany Lions won a record 27 games in 2008-09.

Big crowd
The 11,175 fans at MSG were the most for an NIT final since 2005.

"And you say we're a football school," Chambers cracked.

Something different
The NIT was a bit of a mad scientist in the college basketball lab. The game featured four 10-minute quarters. The tournament also implemented the FIBA 3-point line (22 feet, 1.75 inches), NBA-width lane of 16 inches, and a 20-second shot clock following offensive rebounds.

Penn State dominates Mississippi State to reach NIT title game

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Penn State dominates Mississippi State to reach NIT title game

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NEW YORK -- Nearly a month after Penn State was bounced out of the Big Ten Tournament, the Nittany Lions are back at Madison Square Garden with another chance to win a championship.

Tony Carr scored 21 points, Shep Garner added 18 while breaking the school record for career 3-pointers and Penn State routed Mississippi State 75-60 in the National Invitation Tournament semifinals Tuesday night.

"Of course we were a little disappointed not to make the (NCAA) Tournament, but we made another goal," Garner said. "We saw we were in the NIT and our goal was to get to New York and win it. That's what everyone wants to do. We put ourselves in position to do so."

The fourth-seeded Nittany Lions (25-13) will play No. 2 seed Utah for the title Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.

After the score was tied 9-all, Penn State ended the first quarter on a 9-2 run. From there, the Nittany Lions opened the second with a 19-0 spurt capped by Garner's 3 off an assist from Carr to make it 37-11.

With football coach James Franklin cheering from the stands, Penn State went up 42-23 at halftime and led by as many as 27.

Mississippi State (25-12) wasn't able to get within 20 again until there was 7:56 left in the game. Abdul Ado's dunk made it 65-47, but that was the closest the Bulldogs got before the waning moments.

"We were really impatient," Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said. "Once we started falling behind, we got anxious and we were shooting quick. Quick, bad shots and it just like, snowballed."

Tyson Carter scored 19 points off the bench to lead No. 4 seed Mississippi State. Ado had 13 points and seven rebounds.

Lamar Stevens scored 17 for Penn State, which shot 11 of 20 from 3-point territory. Carr had six assists and five rebounds.

Big picture
Penn State: While the Nittany Lions would have preferred to play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011, they made the NIT for the first time under seventh-year coach Pat Chambers. Penn State's last trip to the NIT title game was in 2009, when it beat Baylor for the crown. The school's only other appearance in the final was a loss to Minnesota in 1998.

Mississippi State: With just one senior on the roster, the Bulldogs will return most of their team and have something positive to build off as they try to move up the rankings in the rugged SEC next season.

Record producer
With his six 3-pointers, Garner broke Penn State's record for 3s in an NIT along with the school mark of 332 held by Pete Lisicky (1995-98). Garner also had six 3s in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal loss to Purdue, giving him 12 in his last two games at Madison Square Garden and 334 for his career.

"They say the record is an individual record, but I've had a lot of teammates that had a lot to do with the record," Garner said. "A lot of people that set screens for me to get me open, break passes to them, they put it right on the button for me and I just finish the job. That's a team record. It's a lot of people that had stuff to do with it. I tip my hat to my teammates and my coaches to put me in a position to do something special like that."

Up next
Penn State: Will try to win the second NIT championship in school history when it faces Utah (23-11), which beat Western Kentucky 69-64 in the first semifinal.

Mississippi State: Starts preparing for a promising 2018-19 season.