Suffice to say, things aren’t going particularly well for the Penn State offense this season.
Though the offensive line play has markedly improved and though James Franklin has managed to bring in a few talented young players to complement his attack, the Nittany Lions, as they had all of last season, continue to struggle to generate any kind of consistency. Or any kind of excitement.
Christian Hackenberg, who was once touted as the best NFL prospect in all of college football, looks like a shell of his former self. Tentative in the pocket, throwing off his back foot and playing without any confidence at all, he has been, to put it bluntly, completely ineffective. Through seven games, he’s completing just over 53 percent and has accounted for a relatively paltry 1,206 yards through the air.
As a team, the Nittany Lions rank 107th nationally in passing yards per game (177.4), 77th in rushing yards per game (162.7) and 94th in points-for (23.0). Offensive coordinator John Donovan can’t find ways to get enough big plays out of his tragically underutilized wideouts (Chris Godwin, DaeSean Hamilton, Brandon Polk and others), can’t get any production at all out of his talented corps of tight ends and, when they Nittany Lions need to make a clutch third- or fourth down conversion in a tight game, well, he can’t get that done either.
In other words, the Nittany Lions offense remains a train wreck—and its continued inability to put points on the board is once again wasting a tremendous effort from the Penn State defense, which is ranked among the best in the country and currently leads the entire nation is sacks, with 27.
Given that context, then, it’s no wonder that the Nittany Lion faithful are pulling their hair out.
But if there’s any silver lining to be found in the black cloud that continues to hang over Happy Valley, it could be found on field Saturday night in Columbus. There in the Horseshoe, in front of the largest crowd to ever see the Buckeyes play football, Nittany Lion freshman tailback Saquon Barkley served notice to the football world that he has arrived—and figures to make defenses miserable for years and years to come.
The big takeaway from the night? It’s this: The Nittany Lions offense may not have much at the moment, it does have Barkley—and he very well may be the best tailback in the Big Ten.
It’s hard to put into words how incredible this kid played on Saturday night, especially given the larger context of the occasion. The freshman from Whitehall, Pa. came into this game still not quite 100 percent after suffering a nasty ankle injury a few weeks back, and was walking, of course, into an absolute hornet’s nest of an atmosphere. And yet, he was completely unfazed—and the Buckeyes were completely incapable of stopping him.
Even on a night when the Nittany Lion passing game again stalled out, and even taking into account that by the middle of the second quarter the entire stadium knew that Barkley was the only guy the Buckeyes needed to focus on, the kid went out and turned in yet another sterling performance: 26 carries, 194 yards, and an average of 7.5 yards per carry. He broke off several long runs, including a 56-yarder, and displayed all of the talents of a big-time college tailback. He ran through Buckeyes and around them. He flattened Ohio State safety Eli Apple with a brutal stiff-arm, and later hurdled two other Buckeyes in one of the most spectacularly athletic plays of the Big Ten season so far.
And on a night when pretty much nothing went right for the Nittany Lions—a night that must have reminded Franklin just how much more work needs to be done before his team will be able to compete with the likes of Ohio State—Barkley was almost perfect.
He may not be able to save Penn State’s offense on his own.
But he’ll certainly do his part—and that just may be enough to get this team a couple more wins than it otherwise might have had.