Penn State’s Saquon Barkley slipped behind Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield in this week’s Heisman Trophy oddsmaking, shifting the award’s focus in the season’s final month.
Barkley, however, isn’t out of the race. At all.
The running back has three regular-season games against favorable defenses to stage his Heisman closing argument. Question is, how will Penn State’s offense contribute to Barkley’s case?
“Obviously we want to get the ball in Saquon’s hands as much as we possibly can,” Penn State coach James Franklin said Tuesday. “But we won't force it.”
Once the nation’s leader in all-purpose yardage, Barkley last week dipped to second (behind San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny) and fell below the 200-yard average for the first time this season (195.7). Barkley also did not score a touchdown against Michigan State, ending his Football Bowl Subdivision-leading (and school-record) streak at 15 consecutive games.
Over his past five games, Barkley has rushed for more than 100 yards just once. The other four teams held him to 75 yards or fewer. In Penn State’s losses at Ohio State and Michigan State, Barkley rushed for a total of 107 yards.
Joe Tessitore, the ESPN broadcaster who conducts a weekly Heisman Trophy poll, warned last month that Barkley faced his biggest challenges during Penn State’s three-week stretch against Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State. That proved to be an imposing defensive run, and now Barkley is third behind Mayfield and Stanford’s Bryce Love in the ESPN straw poll.
“Whoever the front-runner is, when they stumble, when they lose, they are thrown off the mountain,” Tessitore said. “So what ends up happening is, the guy who moves best in November ends up winning the Heisman.”
November move possible: Barkley now has a chance to make that November move. In its past four games, Penn State faced four run defenses ranked in the top 20 nationally. Michigan State, which held Barkley to 63 yards rushing and 111 all-purpose yards, leads the Big Ten and ranks third nationally in run defense.
But Penn State’s schedule softens considerably in that regard, beginning Saturday against Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights rank 13th in the Big Ten (and 86th nationally) in run defense, allowing 179.6 yards per game. In two previous games against Rutgers, Barkley rushed for 287 yards, averaging 7.8 yards per attempt.
After that, Penn State plays Nebraska (ranked 81st) and Maryland (77th), giving Barkley ample opportunity to post numbers. Now, the Lions have to figure out how to get him there.
Following his team’s 24-21 loss to Michigan State, Franklin said the lack of rushing offense is “not a Saquon issue. It’s a team issue.” On Tuesday, the coach again issued an ultimatum to his team about running the ball more physically and efficiently.
“This isn’t something that just showed up in the last two weeks,” Franklin said. “We’ve been talking about being a more physical unit up front, offensive line, defensive line, tight ends, really every position. I think that’s an area that we can improve.”
Franklin, who called his team “too finesse” last Saturday, said that creating a more-physical group won’t happen quickly. He said the contributing factors are scheme, mentality, practice habits, recruiting and player development, among others.
Schematic approach won't change: Barkley’s biggest impediment has been defenders in the backfield, which opposing teams have been sending all season. Franklin wants his players to win their individual blocks more often but will maintain his schematic approach regarding those extra defenders.
“We’re not going to run him into looks that aren’t good looks,” Franklin said. “Obviously, we have some things called for him to get the ball out of the backfield when people are covering him, but we’re not going to force the ball to him.”
That’s something Barkley himself would want to avoid. The running back left Spartan Stadium on Saturday with teammate Amani Oruwariye, patting the cornerback’s head to boost his spirits.
Though the Heisman Trophy remains in play, Barkley never has made that his primary goal.
“That’s one thing that he handles very well,” Penn State receiver DeAndre Thompkins said. “He knows he’s not the only piece to the puzzle and he’s willing to sacrifice that for the success of the team.”
HEISMAN TROPHY ODDS
With a month left in the season, Penn State's Saquon Barkley remains in the Heisman race.
Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma: 4/7
Saquon Barkley, Penn State: 8/5
Josh Adams, Notre Dame: 8/1
Bryce Love, Stanford: 10/1
J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: 30/1
Lamar Jackson, Louisville: 30/1
Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State: 30/1
Source: Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.
PENN STATE VS. RUTGERS
WHEN: Noon Saturday
WHERE: Beaver Stadium
WATCH: Big Ten Network