STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – With all the attention on Penn State’s 23 seniors who will be introduced Saturday before the game against Nebraska, there is one player not in the senior class who likely will be treating fans to his abundant talents at Beaver Stadium for the last time.
As a top-10 pick in almost all mock NFL drafts and a top-five pick in many of them, junior Saquon Barkley has his future lined up nicely, especially for any team in need of a 230-pound back who can run the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds and has shown versatility with his ability to catch passes, return kicks, and protect the quarterback.
That’s not the primary thing on his mind, however, as he readies for the Cornhuskers (4-6, 3-4 Big Ten). Asked last week about what lies beyond the final game of this season, Barkley said, “It’s really not on my mind.
“When that time comes at the end of the year, that’s something I’ll sit down and talk to my family about,” he said, “but I’m really not focused on that at all. We still have three games left here and something you can focus on.
“When you start letting outside factors in and start looking beyond what’s actually in front of you, you start messing up and start not being who you really are, not staying true to yourself. So you just have to control what you can control.”
Barkley’s Heisman Trophy campaign has fizzled in recent weeks with Penn State (8-2, 5-2) not able to get its running game in sync. He has rushed for 142 yards in the last three games. He is just 101 rushing yards from his third consecutive 1,000-yard season, but he will have to average 154 yards in his last three games to top Evan Royster’s Penn State career rushing record of 3,932.
Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley was asked last week in his postgame interview to pass on a message about Barkley to Heisman voters, and he was only too happy to oblige.
“I’d say there’s no more dynamic player in college football,” McSorley said. “The numbers might not have been there the last couple of weeks, but there’s a lot of stuff behind the scenes that I think some of the voters might not see or hear or realize what he’s doing for our team. The value he brings is indescribable. Aside from his athletic ability and what he can do, there’s a reason why teams are committing eight or nine guys to the box because of the dynamic player he is.
“But there’s no more player deserving in the nation – and that’s not a knock to anyone else. I know Saquon, I’m with him all the time, and the dude’s an athletic freak.”
Barkley is a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award, given to the nation’s most versatile player, and is a semifinalist for the Doak Walker Award (outstanding running back) and Walter Camp Award (outstanding player).
On Saturday, Barkley and the Lions will try to take advantage of a Nebraska defensive line that gave up 409 rushing yards last week in a loss to Minnesota, even though the going could be slippery because of rain forecast in Happy Valley.
But wet weather or not, the fans will be out to salute arguably the greatest running back in Penn State history.
Nebraska at Penn State
Saturday, 4 p.m., Beaver Stadium, State College
Radio: WNTP-AM (990), WNPV-AM (1440).
Records: Penn State, 8-2 overall, 5-2 Big Ten, ranked No. 13 in the AP poll and No. 10 by the College Football Playoff selection committee. Nebraska, 4-6, 3-4.
Coaches: Penn State, James Franklin (33-17 in 4th season at Penn State, 57-32 overall). Nebraska, Mike Riley (19-17 in 3rd season at Nebraska, 112-97 overall).
History: Nebraska leads, 9-7.
Last meeting: Nebraska, 23-20 (OT), Nov. 23, 2013 at Beaver Stadium.
Like a broken record: Yes, some of you remember that. In this case, it’s another plea from fans for Penn State’s rushing game to find some way of breaking Saquon Barkley free. Barkley has rushed for 142 yards the last three weeks while averaging fewer than three yards per carry and his Heisman Trophy hopes continue to fade. There might be hope. Nebraska gives up an average of 200 rushing yards per game, and allowed 409 yards on the ground last week to Minnesota.
A new quarterback? Tanner Lee, who has started all 10 of the Cornhuskers’ games this season, suffered a concussion late in the first half last week against the Golden Gophers. He is considered a game-time decision and, even if he is cleared, he could be yielding his starting spot this week to redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien. The 6-foot-4, 230-pounder completed 12 of 18 passes last week for 137 yards but was sacked six times. Lee has thrown 18 TD passes this season but also has been intercepted 13 times.
It’s Senior Day: The Nittany Lions will salute 23 seniors who will be playing their last game in Beaver Stadium. The biggest rounds of applause are expected to be extended to free safety Marcus Allen, linebacker Jason Cabinda and wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton. Who will be the most emotional? “Actually, it might be me,” Hamilton said. “Marcus for sure, probably one of the most emotional ones, and Jason probably.” Naturally, the biggest potential danger about the pregame introductions of the seniors and their parents is the emotions, so they must be pushed aside once the game starts.
The opponent’s frame of mind: It has been a difficult year for the Cornhuskers, whose head coach has been under fire all season and wasn’t helped by the fact that his team allowed 54 points and 514 total yards last week. “I fully understand whatever those differing thoughts and opinions might be,” Mike Riley said. Riley led the Cornhuskers to a 9-4 record last season and the fans expected improvement this year, but Nebraska has to win its last two games just to qualify for a bowl after losing four of its last five.
Historic programs: Both teams are in the top 10 in lifetime victories among FBS teams. Nebraska is fifth with 893 wins; Penn State, eighth with 876.