STATE COLLEGE — Beaver Stadium trembled as fireworks burst over Happy Valley. A regular season game with a Super Bowl atmosphere.
The night was fit for a superstar, and the superstar that delivered was the one everyone expected.
Penn State running back Saquon Barkley carved up the nation’s No. 1 defense in the Nittany Lions’ 42-13 win, validating his case as the best player in college football.
He didn’t set a career high in rushing yards, receiving yards or touchdowns, but he accomplished something that no other tailback could — run successfully against Michigan.
Nobody had run like him against the Wolverines. Prior to Saturday, not a single player on any of Michigan’s previous six opponents had over 100 rushing yards, and as a unit, the defense gave up an average of just 85 rushing yards per game.
Barkley alone surpassed that in the first quarter.
“A lot of running backs were able to get open (against Michigan), but none were able to finish it or find a way to get into the end zone,” Barkley said. “That’s something I took ownership of this week.”
He called it a “heavyweight fight.” Sometimes Michigan’s defense would get the stop, and other times Barkley would punch back for a short gain. When either side could land a knockout punch, they had to take it.
Barkley accepted short gains all game long. Four-yard rushes, two-yard rushes and even negative-yard rushes. But when he got the chance to split the gap and break through, he pounced.
On the second play of Penn State’s opening drive, Barkley lined up for a direct snap and ran the ball 69 yards straight into the end zone. He burned Michigan’s secondary, outrunning the linebackers, the cornerbacks and the safeties. Nobody could catch Saquon Barkley.
It was one of those plays that will be on the highlight reel when Barkley suits up for the Heisman ceremony in December.
“We haven’t seen that on film,” said fifth-year senior linebacker Mike McCray about the direct snap to Barkley. “He’s a great player, got to give a lot of credit to him.”
And four minutes later, on the Nittany Lions’ next drive, he caught an option pitch and dashed to the goal line again to give Penn State a 14-point lead.
“The back is really good, as advertised,” Harbaugh said of Barkley. “(Penn State) hit us on quite a few plays we’ve defensed well this year. Their execution was really good tonight, right from the beginning.”
The Wolverines have stopped mobile quarterbacks and quality running backs already, but other teams couldn’t run as fast as Michigan. Sophomore linebacker Devin Bush prides himself on his speed, and he’s one of the Big Ten’s best linebackers because of it. But not even Bush could keep up with Barkley.
On his 69-yard touchdown run, Barkley clocked in at 22.9 miles per hour. He ran to the end zone faster than a high-schooler in his first Drivers Ed class.
But it’s not only Barkley’s speed. He’s got all the right mental components, too.
In the second quarter, Barkley was wide open on a route and had eyes for the end zone, but when the pass came in his direction, he couldn’t hold on. A completion would have put the Nittany Lions up 21-0, but for just one moment, he had lost focus.
And that’s the play Barkley said will stick with him most from this game.
Not either of his rushing touchdowns, and not the juggled receiving touchdown in the third quarter. He doesn’t worry about the highlights. He remembers the plays where he could’ve done better.
“Sometimes I overthink and put myself in bad situations. … I was thinking ‘score,’ ” he said. “It humbles you again. Makes you realize that you got to put a little more work in and find the way to make those plays.”
Combine Barkley’s workhorse mentality with his blistering speed, and you’ve got one hell of a football player. There aren’t many players like Saquon Barkley, so when he gets on the field, make sure to be watching.
But don’t blink. You might miss him.
Janes can be reached on Twitter @tedjanes7.