In the second half, Penn State called Saquon Barkley’s number five times.
His best carry went nowhere. Zero yards. To the line of scrimmage, and that’s it.
His second-best only cost the Nittany Lions three yards.
His last two went for a loss of five yards that set up a second-and-15, and a loss of four that put Penn State in a second-and-14 predicament.
But as they lined up opposite the Minnesota defense in overtime, trailing by three points and desperately needing to avoid anything that went backward, the surprising choice to get it was probably the only choice.
Penn State gave it to Barkley. And it rode him to a 25-yard touchdown run and a 29-26 win.
“Nah,” quarterback Trace McSorley smiled, when asked if he was surprised by the call to go back to Barkley. “This is a dude that you have to keep plugging away and keep plugging away, because the more you get the ball in his hands, the more of a chance you have that something is going to happen.
“We had a read (option) on. Coach told me, unless it’s completely obvious they are pinning for him, give him the ball and lets see what he does.”
Franklin and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead had a plan. They stuck to it. It turned out to be the right call, at the right moment.
A good win: This is never going to get credit for being as good a win as it was, not for Penn State’s players and certainly not for James Franklin. When fans and critics and other pundits talk about trademark wins, they want to see them come against big-time programs, playing their best. They want to see them against Michigan or Michigan State or Ohio State. Minnesota, as good and tough and experienced as it is, is still just Minnesota.
But rest assured, for most of a dreary afternoon at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, Minnesota owned Penn State.
Minnesota looked better than Penn State.
The Golden Gophers rushing attack, as determined as any in the conference, had 228 yards and two backs — Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks — hit the 100-yard plateau. Quarterback Mitch Leidner proved elusive and accurate, for the most part. And the defense stifled Penn State for a half, holding the Nittany Lions to 0 for 7 on third downs and just one trip inside the red zone.
Penn State couldn’t have looked slower, looked less inspired, looked worse than it did in that first half. It seemed like the possibility Penn State could make a comeback didn’t quite match the reality that it would be able to do so.
And really, for the first time in Franklin’s tenure as coach, the Nittany Lions did something that maybe nobody else away from their sideline thought they could.
“I think this is something we needed. Everybody needed it. There’s no doubt about it,” Franklin would say afterward. “I remember when I first became a head coach (at Vanderbilt), we had a game against UConn that we won early on, and that built a lot of confidence. Everybody kind of went with it, and we definitely needed that here.”
Lions must build on momentum: That said, this game loses a lot of shine if Penn State can’t build off the momentum next week against unbeaten Maryland, but for now, count this as more than just Penn State beating Minnesota. It’s Franklin and his staff upending the critics.
The 19-yard field goal attempt from inside the Minnesota 1 that tied the game 3-3 early in the second quarter? Many fans wanted the Nittany Lions to go for it. What was the worst that could happen, they thought? The play gets stuffed? Well, forego those easy points, get stuffed, and there’s no tied game at the end.
That final drive in regulation? They did what they should have done: A pass to Chris Godwin, their best receiver, on third-and-10. A pass play that trended deep and cleared open lanes for McSorley to pick up 26 yards on the ground and put the Lions in field goal range. A pass with 11 seconds left for the end zone, designed only to go toward Godwin, and to be thrown away if the play didn’t break wide open. Then, a 40-yard field goal by Tyler Davis, a former soccer player who had never played football that this staff found through scouring kicking camps and films.
But the biggest feather in the staff’s cap: Sticking with Barkley when everything that had happened after halftime indicated that might be a dangerous thing to do.
“He just keeps persevering, keeps waiting for big opportunities for us,” Franklin said. “And when it came, he made a big play. That’s what happens when you keep a great attitude and keep believing and keep being a great teammate.”
There will be plenty of resistance to the idea, but maybe, this gets looked back on as the signature win of the early part of the James Franklin era at Penn State.
The unpopular choices — his unpopular choices — won Penn State a game.