IOWA CITY, Iowa – The play was a simple swing pass, a third-and-6 from the Penn State 16 early in the fourth quarter. Trace McSorley flipped the ball in the right flat to Saquon Barkley, and what followed became another featured segment of Barkley’s 3 1/2-hour highlight show Saturday night at Kinnick Stadium.
Penn State’s All-American running back took three steps before being confronted by Iowa cornerback Joshua Jackson. Jackson saw Barkley, and then he didn’t, because the Nittany Lions’ athletic 230-pound tailback went airborne up and over him.
Barkley landed in space occupied by free safety Amani Hooker, bounced off Hooker, kept his feet and continued for a 10-yard gain and a first down.
It was one of the 40 times Barkley touched the football on Penn State’s 99 offensive plays in the Nittany Lions’ pulse-pounding 21-19 victory, an outstanding performance before a prime-time national network television audience that moved the Coplay, Pa., native to the top of the Heisman Trophy candidates list.
Barkley set career highs with 211 rushing yards and 12 receptions, and his 358 all-purpose yards broke Curt Warner’s 36-year-old program record. He also contributed on McSorley’s 7-yard touchdown pass to Juwan Johnson as time expired, picking up linebacker Josey Jewell on a blitz and giving his quarterback another second to find a receiver.
But yes, about that hurdling?
“Most of that is just instinct,” he said. “It was third and 6, gotta make a play. It was a critical moment of the game. We needed a first down, we needed to start establishing drives. Your body just takes over. I was able to jump over someone and kind of break the tackle and get the first down.”
When it was over, Barkley’s teammates were effusive in their praise.
“Unreal,” McSorley said, shaking his head. “The dude never ceases to surprise you with what he can do. I don’t know what his numbers looked like but it’s got to be … (something) that’s absurd.”
“When he hurdled, it was impressive. I know the one time he kind of pinned on the sideline with four guys there and almost didn’t even move. Somehow – I’ll probably have to watch it 17 times before I see what he did – he got out of it. But he somehow got out of it. Even during that play, I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ it’s incredible.”
“That boy’s different, y’all saw that,” said defensive end Shareef Miller, who tackled Iowa’s Akrum Wadley in the end zone for a second-quarter safety. “He jumped over somebody and ran somebody over in the air. That boy’s different.”
Barkley, who became the seventh player in program history to rush for 3,000 career yards, gained 119 of his yards on the ground in the third quarter when he dashed for 41 and 25 yards and scored Penn State’s first touchdown on an 8-yard dash just inside the right pylon.
In the fourth quarter, Barkley rushed six times and caught three passes in a 16-play drive that took more than seven minutes. Penn State came up empty when Tyler Davis’ 31-yard field goal try was blocked, but the Lions had one more chance and took advantage, with Barkley catching two passes on the march.
He couldn’t have been prouder of the comeback win.
“We have that dog in us, that never-quit mentality,” he said. “The game is never out of reach, and we’re going to find a way to get a win.”