Saquon Barkley should win the Heisman Trophy but his offensive line still must help him. Barkley dazzled the record Beaver Stadium crowd with a 69-yard touchdown run on the game’s second play and rushed for more yards in one quarter (102 in six carries) than any opponent had this season against the Wolverines’ top-ranked defense. But in his 2½ quarters of play after that, he managed just six yards on nine carries, with four totes going for negative yardage. You can’t really fault how the line played, since Penn State rolled up 506 yards against a team that had been allowing less than 224 per game, and Barkley had another highlight-reel moment with a juggling, 42-yard touchdown catch of a Trace McSorley pass. But with the Heisman in his grasp, it would be more or less a shame if he didn’t finish out the season strongly, especially that given the variety of Heisman voters, some might like gaudy numbers — like Stanford’s Bryce Love’s FBS-leading 1,387 rushing yards, or Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield’s 2,347 passing yards. The award is Barkley’s for the taking right now, but he can’t take it alone.
Wouldn’t you love to examine Joe Moorhead’s files to check out the plays he’s still waiting to call? Penn State’s innovative offensive coordinator, who will have his choice of major FBS head coaching jobs once this season is over, dusted off some plays we’ve never seen before for Michigan — the Wildcat formation (the first time the Lions have run it all season) where Barkley and McSorley quickly shift positions in the backfield just before the snap, and the Barkley-in-motion move into what was an empty backfield where defenders follow him and McSorley keeps and heads the other way. (He scored his three rushing touchdowns that way). And all that set up some deep shots for McSorley; he averaged 10.8 yards per attempt and 16.6 yards per completion, with six of his hookups gaining 20 or more yards. “It’s stuff that we worked on in camp,” head coach James Franklin said. “We had another play that Joe wanted to call, and I just said I’d prefer you not. But plays that we’ve been running in camp and then each week we kind of go back, what do we want to use from our overall playbook? What do we want to use that we ran in camp? The fact that we have some recall helps.”
We don’t know what the Penn State coaches say to their players before they take the field, but it sure helps. The Nittany Lions’ two first-quarter touchdowns meant they have outscored opponents by 90-0 in the first quarter. Eight weeks into the season, they are the only FBS team that hasn’t allowed a single point in the opening 15 minutes. But check out this stat: 72-3, which is how badly they’re outscoring opponents after halftime, or just after they’ve made their adjustments on offense and defense. Getting out to quick starts was a point of emphasis in the offseason by Franklin and his staff, with Penn State getting outscored by 88-68 last year in the first quarter, and trailing at halftime in seven of their 14 games. Now it’s different. “When you have an explosive offense like we do and you’re playing really good first-quarter defense and you can get a lead, it changes how people have to play,” Franklin said. “So we play with an aggressive mind-set, with an aggressive mentality in all three phases, and it’s working out pretty good for us right now.”
Jason Cabinda follows the Allen Iverson mantra: “Play every game as if it’s your last.” Penn State’s senior middle linebacker has a motor that never stops. He spent all of Saturday night flying to the ball, or blitzing through the Michigan line forcing quarterback John O’Korn to run for his life, and recorded a game-high 13 tackles, including a sack as well as a forced fumble. He got on his teammates on the sideline after the defense failed to stop the Wolverines after McSorley threw a first-quarter interception that led to the visitors’ initial touchdown, but he hugged them all after the Nittany Lions pitched a shutout in the second half. “That was huge,” he said. “We really responded well, made our adjustments, really got out feet settled in, read our keys, and played fast. It was great.” The Lions continue to lead the nation in scoring defense, allowing 9.6 points per game, and moved up to ninth in FBS in total defense at 282.9 yards per game.
One big game down, two to go. Can they keep that chip on their shoulder? Michigan’s defense came into Beaver Stadium with all the hype, but the Wolverines left battered and bruised — psyches as well as bodies — with the cheers of more than 110,000 white-out fans ringing in their ears. “I think it definitely played a factor in how we played with a chip on our shoulder, without a doubt,” Cabinda said. “Everyone is talking about, ‘their defense, their defense, their defense.’ So we had to come out and make a statement, and I think we did.” However, to keep their hopes alive for a Big Ten title and a College Football Playoff berth, the Nittany Lions will have to make another statement next week at Ohio State, which has an offense that is rolling up 577 total yards per game, first in the conference and third in the nation. They’ll be facing a revenge-minded hostile crowd, just like Michigan encountered Saturday night in Happy Valley. And don’t forget the week after against rejuvenated Michigan State, which woke up Sunday as the conference’s new leader in total defense. It’s a dangerous yet exciting time for the Lions.