A few games into the 2016 season, one of the questions about Penn State was the lack of production for Saquon Barkley.
As the calendar flips to November, the sophomore running back has now positioned himself for a run at Big Ten offensive player of the year. He set a career high with 202 rushing yards earlier in October against Maryland and finished the month Saturday by breaking that mark with 207 (to go with 70 receiving yards) in a 62-24 win against Purdue.
The Boilermakers (3-5, 1-4 Big Ten) kept this one competitive for a half, just as they did last week against Nebraska. They had no answers for Barkley, who scored 2 touchdowns and could have had more were it not for being subbed out after long runs to set up other scores.
No one in Happy Valley questioned Barkley’s play in the first five weeks. Quite the opposite, in fact. Teams were stacking defenders near the line of scrimmage to focus on the guy who set Penn State’s freshman rushing record last season and was expected to be one of the best in the nation this season.
There were flashes of greatness. A big run against Temple before an injury, a game-winning touchdown against Minnesota. He had 136 yards from scrimmage against Michigan’s awesome defense.
The breakthrough came against Maryland, when he ran through the Terps for 202 yards. He put up 99 against a great Ohio State defense, and that was on just 12 carries.
This performance against Purdue showcased everything Barkley can be. He bowled over defenders. He ran around them. He juked past them.
Barkley caught 3 passes for a team-high 70 yards. He made a few big blocks in pass protection.
The exclamation point was an 81-yard run for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, the longest of his career.
“Their D-line did something weird, something funky, and we couldn’t hit right away and I had to bounce it,” Barkley told reporters in West Lafayette, Ind. “When I bounced it, I had (running backs) coach (Charles) Huff’s voice in my head saying, ‘Trust your speed, trust your speed.’
“I beat the one linebacker with speed and when I got out there I saw someone and thought it was a Purdue player but it was (Penn State guard) Ryan Bates. Ryan Bates was running with me. People were joking around and saying that Ryan looked faster than me.”
Barkley has also embraced a wrinkle in Joe Moorhead’s offense that No. 24 Penn State (6-2, 4-1) has relied more on as the season progressed. Barkley is starting more plays lined up out wide and motioning into the backfield. He did it against Ohio State, and then a lot against Purdue.
It’s a lot of extra movement, but it’s helping shift the defenses around and helping him find plenty of room to run after he collects the ball from QB Trace McSorley.
If the season ended Saturday, Barkley probably wouldn’t win offensive player of the year. Despite a couple of average games recently, Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett or Curtis Samuel would probably still claim the award. Don’t discount Northwestern’s dynamic trio of Clayton Thorson, Justin Jackson and Austin Carr, either.
Barkley is rolling right now though, and Penn State’s schedule is going to afford him a chance for more big games. Iowa has struggled against the run. Rutgers has struggled at everything. Michigan State’s defense has had plenty of problems, too.
Barkley’s 888 rushing yards and 11 total touchdowns lead the conference. He’s got two 200-yards games in three weeks, and another couple of huge games like that could make him the Big Ten’s best by the end of the season.