With his team enjoying a bye week last month, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald figured he’d take in the Penn State game on television, and apparently became a member of Saquon Barkley’s fan club before the evening was over.
“I got a chance to watch the Iowa game as a fan,” Fitzgerald said Monday at his weekly news conference. “The toughness that he showed … I’m sitting there cheering for the guy. I’m like, ‘Wow.’ If I were a Penn State fan, I’d be pretty stoked up. He’s pretty darn good.”
Barkley piled up career highs of 211 rushing yards, 358 all-purpose yards and 12 receptions in that Sept. 23 game won by the Nittany Lions, 21-19. Fitzgerald and his staff now must figure out a way to stop the Heisman Trophy candidate by Saturday when his Wildcats (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) welcome No. 4 Penn State (5-0, 2-0).
“I’ll be a huge fan of his after about 4 o’clock on Saturday to win the Heisman,” Fitzgerald said. “I’d vote for him if I had a vote.”
Barkley found different ways on Saturday to lead the Nittany Lions, returning the opening kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown and throwing for a 16-yard TD on his first career pass in a 45-14 win over Indiana.
Fitzgerald, a former all-America linebacker at Northwestern, called him “maybe the best player I’ve ever seen on tape.”
“I’ve played against some pretty good backs, I’ve coached against some pretty good backs, but he’s just absolutely spectacular,” he said. “He’s great in the run game, he’s great in protection, he’s great catching the ball out of the backfield, he’s a great return man. He does it all. He’s an outstanding football player.”
Barkley will present challenges for the Wildcats, who rank 11th out of 14 Big Ten teams in rushing defense and total defense. Northwestern allowed just 306 yards last Saturday to Wisconsin, but a few big plays turned out to be the difference in the Badgers’ 33-24 victory.
“Obviously he’s going to make plays, he has against everybody that he played,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got to find a way to make a couple more. Any time you play a Big Ten game, you’ve got to execute, you’ve got to play within the framework of what you’re asked to do.
“We’ve got to win the turnover battle. He’s going to make his plays and we’ve just got to respond. If it’s an explosive play, zero points is ideal, three points we can live with. … But he’s just a great player.”
Fitzgerald singled out other Penn State players for praise, including quarterback Trace McSorley, wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton, linebacker Jason Cabinda, and free safety Marcus Allen. He called the Lions secondary “probably the most experienced and most competitive group that we’ve seen. They challenge everything.”
Northwestern has an effective quarterback in junior Clayton Thorson, who ranks second in the Big Ten to McSorley in passing yards with a 265.3-yard average. Running back Justin Jackson, who entered the season with 4,129 career rushing yards, has been bothered by a lower-body injury but Fitzgerald said “he felt better [Monday] than he has in a month, so that’s great.”