Barkley Effect: Penn State offense thrives when freshman running back is on field
Saquon Barkley broke a long run during a training-camp practice, triggering a round of applause from his teammates. But when the Penn State freshman returned to the huddle, he was shaking his head.
"Coach, my shoulders weren't as square as they should have been," Barkley told position coach Charles Huff..
"That's when I knew," Huff said recently. "This kid gets it. This kid's special."
Since then, Barkley has channeled that approach into becoming the most productive player on Penn State's offense. Because of that, Barkley's health is a major component of Saturday's game against Indiana.
Coach James Franklin said Tuesday that he's "hopeful" Barkley will play against the Hoosiers, who bring the Big Ten's highest-scoring offense to Beaver Stadium. Barkley, a Whitehall High graduate, missed last week's game against Army West Point with an apparent ankle injury he sustained the week before. The Lions rushed for 108 yards in a 20-14 victory.
"Are we hopeful we're getting Saquon Barkley back?" Yeah, we're hopeful," Franklin said at his weekly press conference. "But we don't know that right now."
Penn State will need Barkley to propel an offense that has been uneven without him. Barkley leads the Big Ten, and ranks fourth nationally, in yards per carry (8.9). He also ranks fourth in the conference in rushing yards per game (93.2).
With Barkley, Penn State has been more capable of operating a reined-in offense to which it adjusted post-Temple. Since running 27 times against the Owls, Penn State has averaged 37 carries per game while limiting its passing mostly to quick, short throws to minimize sacks and turnovers.
The Lions have topped 160 yards passing just once this season: Hackenberg threw for 328 yards against San Diego State, the game in which both Barkley and starting back Akeel Lynch were injured in the first half.
Number tell tale: With Barkley, however, that run game has generated longer runs, sustained possessions and more points. Barkley has rushed for 373 yards, just 15 fewer than the other four backs combined — and that's on 50 fewer carries.
He has rushed for 47 percent of Penn State's yards despite getting just 27 percent of the carries. Twelve of his 42 carries have been for 10 yards or more. Of Penn State's 10 longest runs, Barkley has six of them. Further, Penn State has scored on eight of the 14 drives that Barkley started.
"As I think we all know and have seen, the guy has the ability to make guys miss," Franklin said after the Army game. "We had a few times tonight where we had guys one on one and weren't able to do that."
Without Barkley, Penn State's backs average 4.2 yards per carry — serviceable, but less than half of Barkley's average. Against Army, Penn State played a trio of redshirt freshmen backs who carried 25 times for 99 yards.
That, in part, forced Penn State into seven downs of third-and-five or longer. The Lions went 2-for-7 on those plays, and 5-for-15 overall on third down, against the Black Knights.
Though Barkley could return against Indiana, Lynch is more unlikely to play. In fact, Franklin sounded less hopeful regarding Lynch's return without mentioning the redshirt junior specifically.
When asked about Barkley, and whether his offense was too dependent on the freshman, Franklin said, "That's all we've got is freshman runner, so I'm not sure what the other option is."