COLLINS: For Penn State, the best way to protect Hackenberg is to run like Barkley
STATE COLLEGE — In many ways, he's the most loquacious coach Penn State has ever had. A promoter who is able to provide the quote that will make everything in Happy Valley seem like it is not only the greatest thing happening on any football field in the Big Ten, but in the world.
Go figure that James Franklin provided the understatement of the season after Penn State's pounding of Rutgers on Saturday.
"I think," he began, "Saquon Barkley has brought something to our offense."
One of the many questions Penn State had to answer as it prepared to open Big Ten play was whether Barley's breakthrough effort against Buffalo a week earlier — in which he gained 115 yards on 12 carries — was a sign of things to come, or the biggest one-hit wonder since Dexy's Midnight Runners.
A one-hit wonder he was not.
Barkley gained 195 yards on 21 carries Saturday. He churned out big run after big run when Rutgers knew he was getting the ball late in the game. He completely overshadowed junior Akeel Lynch, who rushed for 120 yards on 10 carries and somehow seemed like nothing more than a sidebar. Barkley scored two of Penn State's four touchdowns in a 28-3 destruction of the Scarlet Knights. And in his last five quarters, he has rushed for 296 yards.
Not too shabby.
If you want to get right down to it, Barkley has turned Penn State's season around. Because of him, fans have found hope where there was none. Because of him, this is starting to turn away from the team that was so lackluster — it lost to Temple, — toward the team that just might be able to salvage what everyone figured it could out of this season: a decent record, and a trip to a good bowl game.
But at the core of his emergence is the resurgence of another group that most everybody left for dead. Penn State has improved, in short, because Barkley's success has shown them how simple the game can be.
The best way to stop teams from stuffing nine men in the box and blitzing Penn State's oft-doubted offensive line? Find someone to run past and around those nine men.
"To be a running back, it's all about breaking tackles and making people miss," Franklin said. "That's what it's all about, along with pass protection and all of that. But to me, a running back has to bring those to the table. The tight ends, the offensive line, the quarterback and the coaches are all trying to put the running back in a position where he can be one-on-one. And the running back must win more than 50 percent of those one-on-one situations.
"He has been able to do that."
Here's a secret those football coaches who spend 23 hours a day watching film and those players who lift weights and train incessantly when the rest of us are eating buffalo chicken dip while setting our fantasy league lineups don't want you to know:
In theory, football is a very simple game. Do a little bit of everything on offense, and you're tough to defend. Make a team one-dimensional, and you're going to be a dominant defense.
Last season, Penn State was one-dimensional.
Against Temple, Penn State was one-dimensional.
But since the second half of the Buffalo game, when the coaching staff rolled the dice and threw their true freshman into the game, the Nittany Lions have not been one-dimensional. They found a back that could move the chains, one with the vision the find a small hole, the determination to hit it hard, the quickness to shimmy past and around tacklers and pick up positive yardage in chunks.
And a few funny things happened because of that.
— The offensive line got more confident. It got better. Those small holes Lynch was hitting were turning into gaping ones.
— The defenses that had Penn State figured out for more than a year — load the box with defenders, let quarterback Christian Hackenberg try to figure out which one was going to sack him next — could no longer sell out. They had to honor the run, which set up the pass. And because the passer is someone like Hackenberg, who can throw sideline to sideline and vertically with the best in college football, the field got bigger on defenses. Temple essentially defended Penn State in a 10-yard area surrounding the line of scrimmage. Buffalo and Rutgers had to concede that Barkley was whipping them in that zone.
When every player on defense isn't a potential blitzer, Hackenberg becomes less of a target. He wasn't sacked at all against Buffalo, and Rutgers, which harassed him last season, hardly got a hand on him Saturday.
When Penn State is able to run the ball, it is able to protect Hackenberg. And it is able to run the ball because Barkley showed it that it was possible.
Barkley opened all of it up. Lynch is a pretty good all-around back. But in State College, some already are comparing Barkley to Ki-Jana Carter, and that's not a player running backs get compared to often.
Right guard Brian Gaia said he knew the difference Barkley potentially could make during the third practice in summer camp.
"There were a couple jump cuts he had, and you knew the kid was special," Gaia said. "You saw the quickness, the moves he had. He's a special kid."
Lynch waited three years for his crack at the starting job at running back, rushed for 120 yards, averaged 12 yards per carry on Saturday, and might just hear some arguments this week that he should be a backup going forward. But even he has to shake his head when he thinks about what Barkley brings to the table.
"The kid's gifted. There's no doubt about it," Lynch said. "To have another great running back on the team elevates you. The defense can't think they just have to stop one guy. Now, they have to stop two guys."
Nobody has come close yet, and it just might have righted Penn State's season.
Sure, Saquon Barkley has brought something to Penn State's offense.
That something is everything.