It’s funny, because Penn State’s fortunes always seem to go as Saquon Barkley goes.
For so many weeks, when he seemed to headline every Saturday night highlight dump, these Nittany Lions were as close to the top of the college football world as they could ever have dreamed to be.
For these last few, as he has struggled, they couldn’t seem further away from the limelight. Alone in the shadows. Going about their business, sure. But only hoping a sliver of that bright light happens to flood back their way.
On Saturday, Barkley’s hopes of winning the Heisman Trophy probably were slashed to the bone. He ran for 35 yards on 14 carries, and even worse, he did that against Rutgers. It’s going to look bad in the voters’ eyes.
His didn’t seem glossed over as he talked about it though. And rest assured, he knows. He’s not going to the College Football Playoff. He might go to New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony in December, but he’d be an upset winner if he walked out with the trophy at this point.
Yet, on a fast Saturday afternoon that didn’t move the needle much for him (statistically) or the fans (emotionally), he found plenty of beauty in a 35-6 win over Rutgers.
Even if he is among the only ones.
“Obviously, at 8-2, people are going to be disappointed on this team,” Barkley said. “The standard that we hold for this university and this football team is so high, we really believe we can win every game. We’ve let two games go in the past. But the way you keep going and the way you get guys going is by preaching, ‘This season is not over.’ There are a lot of teams that only wish they were in our position.
“We can go and lay an egg for the rest of the season and go and lose every game. But we were able to get back on track. That’s a little thing that matters.”
Good win: The shame of it for guys like Barkley is, this was a good win. Nationally, it’s going to be met with a shrug. Even in their fan base, it’s going to rank as no more than a “So what?” win against a Rutgers team that, as positive as things have been for it lately, isn’t in the same stratosphere as the Nittany Lions, talent-wise.
Putting it bluntly, there’s just nothing Penn State can do at this point to persuade the nation that it’s as good as it believes it is. Not in the regular season, anyway. Beating Rutgers didn’t do it. Nor will beating another pair of Big Ten bottom-feeders, Nebraska and Maryland, over the next two weeks.
But, there’s more to this than simply creating a perception. There’s actually getting better, adjusting, putting yourself in a position to make sure the fourth-quarter pratfalls that cost them games at Ohio State and Michigan State won’t happen the next time around, whenever that chance comes.
On a cold Saturday at Beaver Stadium, Penn State did that.
Consider the competition, sure. But, it did what it had to do to get better.
“We were able to play a complete football game that started a little slow,” head coach James Franklin said. “There were some real positives.”
Making corrections: Two things Franklin has been railing about since the wheels fell off on the national title train: One, the defense’s overall poor reaction on sudden change plays; and the other, finishing games when there is an opportunity to win.
An argument can be made that Penn State corrected the “sudden change” issue after getting three stops in three such situations last week against Michigan State. But certainly, their quick response to Rutgers recovering a crazy opening kickoff that spun short of Barkley, hit the turf and then bounded away from him untouched — “I messed up,” he admitted — before Lawrence Stevens fell on it, made sure a bad situation didn’t get worse. The Nittany Lions held the Knights to three offensive plays and a 33-yard field goal by kicker Andrew Harte.
They were down early, to Rutgers. Which, again, didn’t look good. But imagine how it would have looked had Rutgers, a team that won three of four coming in, was able to go up a touchdown on a Penn State team that some figured could come out listless?
“Our mentality was that we had a job to do, and whenever our number is called, we just have to take advantage of it,” said safety Marcus Allen, who made a key third-down tackle on Rutgers tight end Jerome Washington to force the field goal attempt.
Finishing strong: As for finishing the game? Penn State did that emphatically.
The Scarlet Knights amassed 102 yards on their first three series, and they took a 6-0 lead.
After that? How about 34 yards and no first downs on their next eight drives? During that span, Penn State scored more points (35) than Rutgers had yards.
“Little stuff like that is big, and little stuff like that is what we have not been doing the last few weeks,” Barkley reiterated. “We were able to get on top, extend the lead and finish with the lead. And that’s the stuff we have to take care of.”
Take what happened Saturday for what it’s worth. Penn State pounded Rutgers. Penn State is supposed to pound Rutgers, the same way championship-caliber teams are supposed to hold fourth-quarter leads on the road, even against Ohio State and Michigan State.
There’s no question there’s still a ways to go for Penn State to get past the fringe level, where the Oklahoma States and the TCUs and Washingtons have been residing lately, and push themselves to into Alabama and Clemson country. What happened Saturday is going to get them closer in the long run, even if what happened Saturday isn’t going to make their fans feel very euphoric today.