Why Saquon Barkley's 'moment' transcends even the Heisman

NITS22
Penn State running back Saquon Barkley raises his finger after running for a first-quarter 15-yard touchdown against Michigan on Saturday, Oct. 21, in University Park, Pa.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Pregame fireworks? A waste of fine pyrotechnics. A “White Out” mob inside Beaver Stadium on Saturday night already had itself close to full festive frothing hysteria, the old press box already shaking pre-kickoff.

Saquon Barkley immediately took 110,823 in Happy Valley to a different place entirely. This guy who offers fireworks unseen in college football these days — and not spotted in too many stadiums on Sundays either — had his latest Heisman highlight on his first touch. The play design worked to perfection.

Barkley does not need perfection.

The football snapped directly to him as Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley flashed in front, moving right, taking Michigan defensive eyes with him. Before Barkley was done, he was pantomiming a swimmer in the back of the end zone after 69 nobody’s-catching-him yards.

That was the second play of the game. The first, Barkley had lined up out in the left slot, offering a hint of the possibilities. The junior from the Lehigh Valley moved back to Penn State’s backfield before the snap and stayed in to block.

The next series, Penn State down to Michigan’s 15, Barkley took a pitch right. Just as he crossed the line of scrimmage, somebody in the press box said, “He’s in.” There were bodies still to get past, but the sportswriter was right, they were not impediments. Three touches, two scores.

Let’s get this out of the way: To call the Heisman Trophy the result of a flawed process might be an insult to flaws and processes. There is no perfect process for such things, but having over 800 voters — what could go wrong? The Heisman will be awarded in December, as always, and Barkley is fully expected to be in Manhattan for the ceremony. Votes vary by region, however, sometimes dramatically. Which makes national television games big by definition.

Whether Barkley hears his name to walk up and pick up the famous hardware fully depends on nights like Saturday. This was one of those times, against one of those opponents, when so many of those voters, wherever and whoever they are, tune in for a little more evidence.

There is no debate — none — about Barkley as an elite NFL prospect. This was still a big test. Through six games, Michigan had given up 515 rushing yards on 195 attempts, 2.6 yards per attempt, 85.8 per game. Leading opposing rushers didn’t scald them, gaining 13 yards (Florida), 44 yards (Cincinnati), 62 yards (Air Force), 18 yards (Purdue), 61 yards (Michigan State), and 68 yards (Indiana).

What do these yardage totals have in common? None were as many as Barkley had on his first touch.

Obviously, with Penn State ranked second nationally, Barkley is no underdog. That Heisman pose is his to lose. That early run meant Heisman voters who tuned in only for a pre-8 p.m. check-in already had their memory before switching to the baseball game or the Notre Dame-USC game or going to bed. (We have no analytics on the age of voters.)

Camera icon YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Penn State running back Saquon Barkley looks back running for a 69-yard first-quarter touchdown against Michigan on Saturday.

The game itself kept going on, and quickly grew interesting. Missed opportunities by Penn State and sharper execution by the Wolverines drew Michigan within 14-13. Maybe the biggest missed Lions opportunity was a drop by Barkley on a wheel route in the second quarter. He may or may not have scored if he had watched the ball into his hands.

Second half, Barkley stumbled after a catch, another ‘Hey, he’s human’ touch. In the fourth quarter, there was another separation, a touchdown catch, a triple bobble, a highlight of another sort, another celebration. With Barkley, who finished with 15 carries for 108 yards and those three TDs, it’s not just about the big plays. The little ones offer thrills. A sidestep juke of a defender that gets him to the side line. A catch in the left flat, a couple of steps of forward momentum, a dead stop, another defender on the ground. You’ve seen it all. You saw all in one play at the Rose Bowl.

What Barkley does best? This man makes you aware of the possibilities in his sport. That, to be honest, is more special than a Heisman, which somebody wins every December.