September 23, 2017
On the final play, a play that kept Penn State’s championship aspirations upright, the most exciting player in college football, a real-life video game cheat code, threw his 230-pound body into a blitzing linebacker.
Saquon Barkley didn’t score the game-winning touchdown for Penn State. He didn’t go airborne like he did during the previous quarter, hurdling an Iowa defender with ease to pick up a first down. He didn’t make an opponent look hopeless in his efforts to corral him, like he did for much of the night. But rather, the bowling ball playing running back made sure quarterback Trace McSorley had just enough time to hit Juwan Johnson in the back of the end zone as time expired to lift his team to victory Saturday.
The final score, a 21-19 thriller that went in Penn State’s favor, didn’t tell the full story. The final play, a brilliant dissection of the Iowa defense by McSorley, a pass that somehow seemed to cut right through the entire secondary, also failed to capture Barkley’s full brilliance at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.
“This guy was unbelievable,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said in his postgame interview on ABC following the victory, standing with his arm firmly around Barkley’s shoulder. “I didn’t get to watch it from a fan’s perspective, but from a coach’s perspective, I’m not sure there is a better player in the country than this guy.”
The numbers were both dazzling and historic. Barkley finished with 211 rushing yards, 94 receiving yards and 53 return yards. His 358 all-purpose yards are a new Penn State record.
But the numbers, as big and vibrant as they are, failed to capture the sheer absurdity of the player on this night and most nights Barkley plays. It’s not just the yardage or the touchdowns. It’s not the fact that Barkley singlehandedly prolonged Penn State’s drives.
It was this jump-cut in the first half, a mere appetizer of things to follow. It’s a move so violent that it makes you want to reach down and hold your knee in fear, just to make sure it’s still intact:
It was this run halfway through the third quarter—a showcase of his wide range of unique abilities—highlighted by some CGI-like moves to somehow stay in bounds:
It was this hurdle a full quarter later on third down—a play that seems almost impossible for us mere mortals—that Barkley managed to look almost natural on.
“I was able to get over the guy, break another tackle and get the first down,” Barkley said nonchalantly in the postgame interview, as if such movements are supposed to be normal.
As unbelievable as these moments were, there was a level of acceptance to each one.
This is nothing new for Barkley, a junior, who has become the most unstoppable offensive player in the sport. Barkley already has two 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Last year, he complemented 1,496 rushing yards with 402 receiving yards and 22 touchdowns.
This season, Barkley has rushed for 518 yards while averaging nearly eight yards per carry. He also has 335 receiving yards, just 67 shy of last year’s season total. Through four games, Barkley is the Big Ten’s leader in rushing yards, receiving yards and receptions (23). But again, the numbers won’t suffice. They are a byproduct of what we see.
It’s the way Barkley works in and out of cuts, making Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell, one of the best defensive players in the country, look like just another player at times. It’s the way he makes catching the football—a lost art form for the position—look so normal. It’s how he turns a three-yard loss into a seven-yard gain, which is something he does often.
Not since former USC running back Reggie Bush has the position had a talent this grand at the collegiate level. That is not meant to awaken opinions or disagreements—many great running backs have cycled through the sport since Bush created magic in Los Angeles.
But Penn State games are events because of Barkley. Or at least they should be. Like Giancarlo Stanton at-bats or LeBron James when he’s approaching the rim on a fast break, Barkley is growing larger than the team he plays on or even the sport itself.
There is a sense he could do something you’ve never seen before when he has the football in his hands. Oftentimes, as was the case against Iowa, he manages to deliver.
No, he didn’t technically win the game. That honor goes to McSorley, whose precision in those final moments should be celebrated given what was at stake. Before then, it was Barkley. Moving forward, he will be asked to be his same, ridiculous self.
So rarely does the sport allow us to focus on something beyond the actual results. Penn State’s victory in one of the best games of the young season is a story in itself—one that could carry further significance months from now.
The lasting images from Saturday night, however, won’t be that final throw and catch. It won’t be the sad fan shots around Kinnick Stadium as Iowa supporters tried to process the heartbreak. It will be Barkley, in the open field and in midair, in and out of impossible cuts, doing impossible things that somehow feel routine.
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