Where Penn State running back Saquon Barkley is concerned, it is possible to draw a straight line from last year’s game against Maryland to last week’s game against Minnesota.
And an upward line, at that.
His output in each game was similar, his outlook radically different.
During a conference call with reporters Wednesday, he recalled how frustrated he grew when the Terrapins stacked the box last year, forcing the Nittany Lions to go up top (which they did, resulting in a 31-30 PSU victory).
And Barkley related how much he learned from that experience — how that has informed his approach this season, as opponents have continued to crowd the line of scrimmage, continued to try to take him away.
The Gophers did the same last Saturday. It was quite clear they were not going to let him beat them.
Then he did it anyway, racing 25 yards for the decisive touchdown in overtime.
“It’s hard to stay patient, but you have to stay patient,” he said as he looked ahead to Saturday’s homecoming game against the 4-0 Terrapins, “because you never know when (the defense is) going to split or when that safety has (taken) the wrong one step or that linebacker blitzes wrong. You’ve just got to stay patient. It’s a game of inches. Any second, any moment, you could split something. That’s really just kind of the approach I have.”
He managed just 63 yards on 20 carries against Minnesota. Last year he was limited to 65 on 20 tries against Maryland.
It left him feeling entirely different, however.
“Maryland was like the first real true test for me as a freshman,” he said.
It came in the sixth week of the season, and in his first start. He had enjoyed great success to that point, including a 26-carry, 194-yard effort at Ohio State the week before, but the Terps were lying in wait.
“Maryland did a really good job with their run defense, and did a really good job of containing me,” he said. “I just wasn’t used to it. I was used to a lot of success, and I started getting frustrated and really upset with myself.”
He said then-teammate Akeel Lynch settled him down on the sideline. And Barkley, who finished the season with a PSU freshman-record 1,076 yards, believes he benefited from the experience.
“That game really helped me grow and mature as a player, and really helped me for this year,” he said, adding that it “really opened (his) eyes” and made him realize that “it’s not high school football anymore.”
“This year,” he said, “a lot of things haven’t been going my way. A lot of teams have been loading the box, making it harder for our running game, but I just really have been patient. We’ve been winning games, so I’m satisfied with winning games.”
Barkley has run for 380 yards to date, the 10th-best total in the Big Ten, and is averaging 4.4 yards a carry. That is 1.5 yards fewer than a year ago, and his only 100-yard game so far came in the opener against Kent State. He has, however, already scored seven touchdowns on the ground to match his 2015 total. (He also has a receiving TD.)
Former PSU great Matt Millen, who will serve as the television analyst for the Big Ten Network’s call of Saturday’s game, told Mark Wogenrich of the The (Allentown) Morning Call this week that Barkley is better than last season — that he is bigger, faster and stronger. But Millen also told Wogenrich that opponents have done their homework, that stopping him has become a top priority.
Hence the need for patience, which was never clearer than in the second half of the Minnesota game, when Barkley was limited to minus-12 yards on five attempts. Quarterback Trace McSorley kept telling him that he would pop one, and finally he did.
That wasn’t the only reason coach James Franklin was exultant after the game, however.
“I’m really proud of Saquon because the way he has handled adversity,” he said. “You’ve never seen bad body language from him, ever. He is not having the big games of statistics that I think people anticipate or expect. You haven’t seen him once give body language or hang his head. He is a great team player and keeps persevering and keeps waiting for opportunities, and when it came he made a big play for us. And that’s what happens when you keep a great attitude and keep believing and being a good teammate. He did that tonight and I am super proud of him.”
Barkley said he is conscious of that, that he tries to keep in mind how he looks and acts.
“I mean, I don’t see myself getting frustrated at all this year,” he said, “because it’s all about our body language — having good body language and no matter how the game’s going, just continue believing, continue to try to be a good leader on the sideline and be a vocal leader and push the team, and be there for my team when they need me.”