IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa players and coaches know they’re facing a budding superstar this weekend in Penn State RB Saquon Barkley. And it’s nothing new to them.
The Hawkeyes dealt with his kind two years ago in 2014. That’s when Iowa faced Northern Iowa’s David Johnson (now with the Arizona Cardinals), Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon (San Diego Chargers), Indiana’s Tevin Coleman (Atlanta Falcons) and Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah (Detroit Lions). All four were drafted in the first three rounds of last year’s NFL draft.
Barkley, a true sophomore, fits in that category.
“I don’t know where to start,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week. “The guy is a really good player. He played well last year, and he’s playing better now. He’s tough and strong — start with that — and he can run.
“You might think you have him. Looked like Minnesota had him contained. Not bottled up, but contained. And then, ‘Boom,’ he makes the biggest play of the game. So that’s what great players do. They have you on edge every play of the game. We’ve faced some backs like that, and it’s tough duty.”
Iowa’s run defense struggled early on and gave up at least 150 yards in four of the Hawkeyes’ first five games. The Hawkeyes showed drastic improvement in wins against Minnesota and Purdue. Running back Corey Clement’s 34-yard burst late in Wisconsin’s 17-9 win against Iowa sparked a 167-yard overall effort against the Hawkeyes two weeks ago. But the Hawkeyes allowed the Badgers just 3.5 yards per carry.
Barkley leads the Big Ten in total rushing yards with 888. He averages 111.0 yards per game and has rushed for 10 touchdowns. Last week against Purdue, Barkley ran for a career-best 207 yards. He reached 202 yards on Oct. 8 against Maryland and rushed for 4 touchdowns against Pittsburgh on Sept. 10. Barkley also has 14 catches for 213 yards and a score this season.
Against Minnesota, Barkley rushed for only 63 yards on 20 carries. But on his final touch, Barkley burst up the middle, veered left, changed direction with one hard cut and raced into the end zone for the game-winning, 25-yard touchdown.
“He’s very explosive,” Iowa cornerback Desmond King said. “He’s a guy that can change the momentum of the game and our job to stop him is to leverage the ball, tackle him and just wrap him up. We can’t have any missed tackles. We’ve really got to put more emphasis on our tackling this week and just doing our job.”