Running backs Saquon Barkley, James Conner take center stage as Penn State, Pitt renew rivalry
It is Penn State-Pitt week — or Pitt-Penn State week, depending on your leanings — which means the long-awaited renewal of a rivalry that has been dormant since 2000.
The guessing game is already in full swing.
Were the Nittany Lions and Panthers merely showing signs of offensive rust in their respective season openers against Kent State and Villanova this past Saturday, or were they sandbagging?
Both are being coy, at the very least.
“There’s a lot of offensive stuff we can do,” Penn State sophomore running back Saquon Barkley said after the closer-than-it-sounds 33-13 victory over the Golden Flashes. “It’s really a week-by-week thing, depending on the teams we play, and what we felt we could do against Kent State this week.”
Meanwhile, a source told Mike Vukovcan of Pittsburgh Sports Now that Pitt showed “a bare minimum” in its 28-7 victory over the Wildcats, that the Panthers “did not want to show anything to Penn State on film.”
This is all very cloak-and-dagger — doubly so, since both teams have new offensive coordinators. Matt Canada spent the previous three seasons in the same job at N.C. State before coming to Pitt, and Joe Moorhead was hired on at Penn State last December after serving as Fordham’s head coach the four seasons prior.
Adding to the mystery is the fact that Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi has elected to close practice and cut his team off from media inquiries this week.
Let’s not overthink this, though. The one thing we all know for sure is that both teams will rely heavily on their star running backs, Barkley and Pitt junior James Conner. They are a sizable part of each club’s identity, the guy whose name will be underlined on every opponent’s scouting report.
Conner, the ACC Player of the Year while rushing for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2014, missed all but one game last year after tearing the medial collateral ligament in his right knee then learning he was suffering from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The disease, arrested by chemotherapy, has been in complete remission since May, and while Conner managed just 53 yards on 17 carries against ‘Nova, he scored two touchdowns, one on the ground and one on a reception.
Barkley ran for 105 yards on 22 carries against Kent State — “a very sneaky 100-yard game,” in the estimation of Nittany Lions coach James Franklin.
It was a game that left Barkley dissatisfied, despite the fact that he showed the same strength and elusiveness he had while rushing for a school freshman-record 1,076 yards in 2015. (His best run Saturday might have been on a second-and-5 snap from the Penn State 40 in the second quarter, when he started left, spun away from a tackler in the backfield and darted around right end, turning a loss of four into a gain of 4.)
Still, he said afterward, “I felt like I left a lot of plays out there. It was a first game. A couple too many mental errors — just little stuff I’ve got to work on, and stuff that I focused on working on, and it’s got to translate to the field.”
Never mind that he scored on a 6-yard gallop later in the first half. Never mind that he is, in his own estimation, “10 times better (a) player” than last year, when he rushed for 1 yard on one carry in the opener against Temple, missed two other games with an ankle injury and didn’t start until Week 8.
Never mind any of that. Saquon Barkley believes he has more to give.
And in a week where precious little can be said with certainty, it seems clear he will be afforded ample opportunity to give it.