UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It began, as it so often does, with a brief burst of poetry from Saquon Barkley.
Second play of the game, biggest crowd in Penn State history (110,823) in a nationally televised night game against Michigan, and the Nittany Lions didn’t even bother to include quarterback Trace McSorley on the play, instead snapping the ball directly to Barkley, who cut back against the grain and outran the Wolverines defense for a 69-yard touchdown.
There is little doubt at this point that Barkley is the most consistently exciting running back in the country this season, if not in the recent history of the sport. Every time he gets a touch, there is the potential for a kind of beauty rarely seen since Barry Sanders last carried a football.
There is also little doubt that every gasp-inducing retweetable highlight leads him that much closer to Penn State’s first Heisman Trophy since John Cappelletti’s in 1973. If he’s not at the top of your list after scoring three touchdowns and accumulating 161 rushing and receiving yards against the top-ranked defense in the country, then you’re probably doing it all wrong.
But here is perhaps the most intimidating thing about the second-ranked team in the country after Saturday night’s 42-13 victory over Michigan: Even as Barkley was solidifying his status as the front-runner for the Heisman, the Nittany Lions were proving, as definitively as they have to date, that they are something more than their best player.
In the midst of the first leg of the most difficult three-game stretch of their season, they used Barkley alternatively as both a weapon and a decoy.
They used him in Wildcat looks and read-option looks; they put him in motion and then back in motion to the other side of the field; they used him as a receiver—like when he bobbled and then caught a 42-yard fourth-quarter touchdown pass that was even more lovely for the way it showed off Barkley’s ability to recover from his own little mistakes.
They used him to set up deep passes to their other receivers, like DaeSean Hamilton, and to Mike Gesicki, a tight end with the kind of NFL-ready athleticism that allowed him to literally hurdle his own quarterback during a touchdown celebration.
"Our wide receivers are dangerous," Barkley said. "We're willing to take what you give us, and we're willing to throw over your head."
By the time he had tallied six carries on Saturday, Barkley had already put up 102 rushing yards and scored two touchdowns, and Penn State led 14-0.
But then came the moment when things could have fallen apart. Then came the moment when McSorley, leading the way to the Michigan end zone once more, threw perhaps his worst interception of the season. Michigan went on to cut the lead to 14-13, and Barkley found himself running backward at times against the Wolverines' deliberately aggressive defense.
At those moments, when Penn State needed someone else, they had someone else—whether it was McSorley, who ran for 76 yards and scored three rushing touchdowns, including a weaving 13-yard run that put the Nittany Lions up 28-13 in the third quarter, or whether it was Hamilton, the target of several McSorley deep fades that took advantage of a Michigan pass rush that often leaves its secondary playing man-to-man in coverage.
"You've got to make them pay for playing so aggressive," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "You've got to take shots down the field against them."
Many of the new wrinkles Penn State showed on Saturday, Franklin said—including those direct snaps to Barkley—had been in the playbook since training camp. At times, Penn State’s offense can appear deceptively simple, to the point where skeptics believe it is easily solved, if only you throw everything you possibly have at Barkley.
But Saturday night proved this will only get you so far. If Barkley isn’t the definitive Heisman front-runner because of his burgeoning portfolio of highlights, he may win it simply because of everything else he opens up for Penn State’s offense.
There are still two more games remaining in this yawning stretch of season for the Nittany Lions, and next week at Ohio State, far from the whiteout crowd that carried them through Saturday night, may prove to be the toughest of all. (And even if they make it through that, a date at Michigan State looms.)
But for a team that is not far removed from an era of struggle and scandal, a blowout win over Michigan—one year after it was blown out by Michigan itself—is yet another step toward both a Big Ten championship and a potential berth in the College Football Playoff. And it was proof, once more, that Barkley is the beating heart of this offense, and that he has not yet ceased to amaze all of us who watch this sport. Including his own quarterback.
"You think you’ve seen it all," McSorley said, "and then he does something else, and you're like, ‘Well, OK then.'"