UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State unleashed an absolute onslaught Saturday night against Georgia State in Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lions erupted for 35 first-half points en route to a 56-0 victory that saw eight players score touchdowns, though running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley commanded the largest spotlight.
This duo creates arguably the most dynamic offensive backfield in college football. Their journey together at Penn State has featured a Big Ten championship, a Rose Bowl appearance and an array of national accolades that may ultimately lead both to New York City in December.
The Heisman Trophy ceremony rarely features teammates, but Penn State is posting rare offensive production through three games in 2017, continuing a trend from last season. The Nittany Lions have scored at least 30 points in 10 straight games, starting with a 62-point explosion against Purdue on Oct. 29.
“We’re complementary in what we do in the run game and the pass game,” McSorley said Saturday night after Penn State improved to 3-0. “Teams pack the box and we have one-on-ones outside, or teams open up with coverage and we’re able to run the ball on them. I think it’s extremely beneficial for both of us as players.”
McSorley took advantage of a defensive game plan geared toward limiting Barkley on the ground. He set a program record for first-half passing yards (258) and accounted for 4 touchdowns before halftime.
His third-quarter exit abbreviated this effort, much like his early departure against Akron, but the damage was done. McSorley completed 18 of 23 pass attempts for 309 yards and 4 scores, resulting in a quarterback rating of 248.5. He added 24 rushing yards and a touchdown on 3 carries.
Barkley succinctly summed up his performance.
“It was Trace,” he said. “Trace stands back in the pocket, he extends plays, keeps his eyes down the field, uses his feet and makes plays. He’s a playmaker — one of the best in the country, if not the best.”
If not the best … then perhaps Barkley fits the bill.
“He’s just got so many tools,” Penn State coach James Franklin said about his junior running back. “You talk about a 230-pound guy who can make you miss, run you over, and then can burst up the sideline. Two years ago, he said he wanted to get faster. He worked on that and finished runs off last year. This year, I can’t imagine there’s a more explosive, dangerous player in space than him. He’s a special guy in a lot of different ways. I stopped being surprised or amazed awhile ago with him.”
You serious, @saquonb21?
— Penn State On BTN (@PennStateOnBTN) September 17, 2017
Barkley again showcased his big-play ability against Georgia State, taking a short pass 85 yards to put Penn State up 14-0 late in the first quarter. Of the 5 touchdowns he’s scored this season, 3 have occurred from at least 30 yards out.
“He can score from the 1-yard line or he can score from 99 [yards out],” Nittany Lions running back Andre Robinson said. “I don’t think more than a handful of people in the country can do that. He’s different.”
Robinson, who scored a 41-yard rushing touchdown Saturday, also noted the impact of McSorley. He expressed confidence that both of his backfield teammates can contend for the Heisman Trophy.
“I definitely think Trace is one of the best players in the country, and he’s playing like it,” Robinson said. “Him being able to run the ball really keeps defensive lines honest because they can’t just crash down on the [running back]. With his throwing threat, if teams stack the box like they did [Saturday], he’s just going to beat you through the air. You kind of have to pick your poison with him.”
— Penn State On BTN (@PennStateOnBTN) September 17, 2017
This kind of performance from McSorley shouldn’t be surprising after his accomplishments in 2016, when he set Penn State single-season records for passing touchdowns (29) and total offensive yards (3,979). McSorley has now thrown a touchdown in 18 consecutive games.
“He holds himself to a standard,” Barkley said. “He’s a leader on the team. He’s a captain on the team. When you’ve got that kind of guy in your backfield, it makes you work even harder. He has a never-quit mentality. He’s a winner, and he’ll do whatever it takes.”
Of course, those attributes could also be applied to Barkley.
Known as an athlete who raises the accountability of his locker room, he needed just 15 total touches to tally 226 all-purpose yards. Heisman hype has surrounded him since 2016, and a 250-yard, 3-score effort in the Rose Bowl ensured his name would be near the top of any preseason watch list.
Barkley entered Week 3 listed fourth overall in odds to win one of sports’ most celebrated awards, according to OddsShark.com. Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, who won it last year and tops the current odds list, suffered a 26-point defeat at home against Clemson on Saturday, though he did toss 3 touchdowns.
McSorley was listed 13th overall in those odds through two weeks of the season, but a 333-yard, 5-touchdown showing should help boost his stock. When asked about a potential dual Heisman race at Penn State, he didn’t shy away from the subject.
“It’s definitely something we’d love to have happen. It’s a dream,” McSorely said. “The way our offense is, the credit will come if you continue to have success. If me and him do what we need to do to put this team in the best position to win games from an offensive standpoint, all that stuff will end up working out in the end.”
Here’s a rundown of how both players have produced through three games. The Big Ten schedule begins Sept. 23 when Penn State travels to Iowa.
|307 rushing yards||753 passing yards|
|241 receiving yards||137 rushing yards|
|5 total touchdowns||11 total touchdowns|
|11.2 yards per offensive touch||67 percent pass completion|
You don’t need to look far back to assess the last time teammates each warranted acknowledgment as Heisman finalists. Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield and receiver Dede Westbrook both made the cut last season, finishing third and fourth in voting, respectively.
USC running back running back Reggie Bush won the award in 2005, while Trojans quarterback Matt Leinart placed third in voting. Teammates also finished in the top 5 in 2008, when Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell and his receiver Michael Crabtree cracked the list at fourth and fifth, respectively
There is also an example in Penn State history. The team went undefeated in 1994, and two Nittany Lions landed among Heisman leaders.
Running back Ki-Jana Carter received the second-most votes behind Colorado rusher Rashaan Salaam, while quarterback Kerry Collins finished fourth overall. It makes you wonder whether one would’ve secured the award if not for the congruent campaign of a teammate. Ultimately, it results in “canceled out” voting, as one takes away from the other.
Ultimately, both Barkley and McSorley seem far more concerned with the win column than first-place votes for a ceremony that’s still nearly three months away. Still, a mutual trip to Manhattan may turn out to be a by-product of their shared success if the next nine games — plus a potential Big Ten title game — go the way they plan.
“If you want to have a confident team, you’ve got to be a confident player,” Barkley said. “I believe, with the ball in my hand in space or the ball in my hands at all, I can be one of the most dangerous players in college football. But, I also believe Trace can be, too.”