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Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is one of the most-decorated linebackers in college football history: He’s a two-time Nagurski Trophy and Bednarik Award winner, a two-time consensus All-American and a 2008 inductee into the Hall of Fame.

Still, Fitzgerald — who joined the Wildcats as a player in 1993 — said Monday he’s maybe never seen a running back quite like Penn State’s Saquon Barkley.

“Barkley is maybe the best player I’ve ever seen on tape,” he said, unprompted, during his opening statement. “And I’ve played against some pretty good backs. I’ve coached against some pretty good backs. But he’s just absolutely spectacular. He’s great in the run game, he’s great in protection, he’s great catching the ball out of the backfield, he’s a great return man. He does it all. He’s an outstanding football player.”

When later asked the kind of backs Fitzgerald has watched and played against, just whom exactly Barkley might be more impressive than, Fitzgerald rattled off numerous names. He mentioned Wisconsin great Ron Dayne, FBS’ all-time leading rusher; Ohio State’s Heisman-winning Eddie George and Michigan dynamo Tim Biakabutuka. He also couldn’t help but add Northwestern’s own Darnell Autry and Damien Anderson, arguably the Wildcats’ two best backs in modern history.

“The list goes on and on,” Fitzgerald said. “And to just see the skill-set (Barkley) has, it’s everything. He’s great in protection, he’s great running the ball, he’s got great vision, he’s got great balance, he’s got great speed, he’s got great toughness.

“I had a chance to watch the Iowa game and the toughness he showed — as a fan in the bye week, I’m sitting here cheering for that guy. It’s like, ‘Wow.’ If I was a Penn State fan, I’d be pretty stoked up. He’s darn good.”

Fitzgerald isn’t one for hyperbole. The straight-talking coach praised Penn State in other areas, calling quarterback Trace McSorley a “great player” and adding that safety Marcus Allen “popped” on film. But he saved his highest compliments for Barkley.

He paused for a moment when asked how Northwestern can stop Barkley. And then ended on a note that Nittany Lions fans are sure to appreciate.

“He’s going to make his plays, and we’ve got to respond,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s just a great player, and I’ll be a huge fan of his after 4 o’clock on Saturday for the rest of the year to win the Heisman. I’d vote for him. Five games in, I’d vote for him.”

The No. 4 Nittany Lions will take on Northwestern at Ryan Field on noon Saturday. Barkley is averaging 243.6 all-purpose yards per game this season.

 

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