Penn State 56, Nebraska 44: Saquon Barkley back in Heisman race

Nebraska Penn St Football
Penn State star running back Saquon Barkley, seen here with head coach James Franklin after Saturday’s 56-44 win over Nebraska, gave a fresh boost to his chances to be a Heisman Trophy finalist with a big performance against the Cornhuskers at Beaver Stadium.

Bye-Bye, Say-Say. A perceptive reporter asked a question of James Franklin at the post-game press conference about Saquon Barkley’s future after Penn State’s head coach referred to Barkley in the past tense. “I’m blessed to have coached him,” he said.

There is little doubt that Barkley played in his last game Saturday at Beaver Stadium, closing with 158 rushing yards and three touchdowns plus six catches for 66 yards, since he likely will declare for the NFL Draft after the season is over.

Franklin said he spoke with Barkley about his options before the season started and wouldn’t say what was discussed. But he offered this: “This is the story I say all the time: if IBM came to our computer engineering department and offered a junior a $12 million contract, they’d be gone. I give these guys information all the time based on the entire picture.”

Franklin said they haven’t discussed the matter since, adding, “We will have that conversation when the time comes.” As for Barkley, he said, “I haven’t made a decision yet.” Maybe not, but the kid they called “Say-Say” in high school is all but gone.

Back in the Heisman Trophy race. People who have watched the dazzling Barkley all season had to be more than a little amazed that he did not earn a top-five ranking last week of ESPN’s Heisman watch.

He might have picked up some votes after Saturday’s performance against Nebraska, which followed a three-game stretch when he ran for just 142 yards in Penn State’s ineffective ground game. Maybe he gained a few more after Heisman frontrunner Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma was spotted on camera grabbing his crotch while taunting players on the Kansas bench.

That perhaps won’t be enough to best Mayfield, but it should at the very least gain him an invitation as a finalist on Dec. 9 in New York, as well as a trip to Atlanta for ESPN’s college football awards show.

Barkley’s last chance before the balloting closes on Dec. 4 will be next week against a Maryland team that allowed 271 rushing yards Saturday at Michigan State.

So when is the right time to pull your starters? The numbers were pretty staggering in the fourth quarter for Nebraska after Penn State replaced its starters with backup players. The Cornhuskers racked up 211 total yards and scored 20 points in the final 15 minutes while quarterback Tanner Lee went 12 of 15 for 188 yards and two TDs.

The Nittany Lions sprinkled in some starters on Nebraska’s last drive, but they couldn’t stop the visitors from pushing another score across on the game’s final play.

“The fine line is, you second-guess yourself all the time … when you put the twos in the game,” Franklin said. “You leave the ones in and people say you’re running up the score. You put the twos in and you give up 21 points late or whatever it was. I’m still not completely sure when the right time is to make those changes.”

Or maybe you can say it’s a good problem to have.

The offense found the zone. The Nittany Lions had a dreamlike sequence late in the first quarter and for most of the second when they scored five touchdowns on as many possessions with drives covering 66, 85, 67, 65 and 78 yards. During that stretch, there were just four third-down conversions, all successful, and five plays of more than 20 yards with Barkley and wide receiver Juwan Johnson accounting for two each.

“It felt good, and that’s what we expect when we go out there,” quarterback Trace McSorley said. “For it to kind of actually happen like that, it’s fun. Guys start having fun and playing with some swagger and playing with confidence and that just continues to help get the ball rolling.”

How good was it? Penn State gained 304 yards of total offense for the entire game a week earlier against Rutgers. On just those five drives Saturday, the Lions rolled up 332 total yards, and benefited from a few Nebraska penalties.

Johnson could be Penn State’s next big-time wideout. Johnson, a 6-foot-4, 226-pound redshirt sophomore from Glassboro, established a career high with 105 receiving yards on five catches.

In his first full season as a starter, he is up to 42 catches for 572 yards. He has gained confidence throughout the season, and has shown an impressive willingness to fight through the first hit and keep going to gain valuable yards after the catch.

One example came in the first quarter when he caught a slant pass that would have been a 10-to-12-yard gain, broke a tackle, headed for the right sideline and finally was forced out of bounds to end a 43-yard play. With seniors DaeSean Hamilton and Saeed Blacknall in their final season, Johnson likely is to be featured in a more prominent role in 2018.