It’s not easy to stop a Heisman-candidate running back, and it’s a lot harder to do so on the road during one of college football’s most recognizable traditions — the whiteout game in Happy Valley.
But that’s the task the No. 19 Michigan football team (2-1 Big Ten, 5-1 overall) is faced with this week as it prepares for No. 2 Penn State (3-0 Big Ten, 6-0 overall) and Saquon Barkley.
Barkley is third in the Big Ten for total scoring with two receiving touchdowns, six rushing touchdowns, one kick return touchdown and even a passing touchdown.
He averages 108 rushing yards per game and 6.4 yards per carry.
Keeping Barkley’s contributions to a minimum will be tough to say the least, even for Michigan, which leads the nation in total defense.
“It’ll be a team effort defensively to go against a great player, and a really outstanding offense,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.
“… (Barkley) can catch the ball out of the backfield. He can run all of the assortment of runs, inside the tackles and on the edge. Very good pass protector. He is a multi-purpose back that can do everything well.”
Barkley’s presence pits an elite offense against an elite defense. The Wolverines’ two starting linebackers, senior Mike McCray and sophomore Devin Bush Jr., will have a lot on their hands.
“I’m going to be matched up on him all game,” Bush said. “I’m going to have to stop him in the run game and the pass game, so I know he’s going to test me.”
Linebackers played a big role in shutting down the Nittany Lions last year, when Michigan steamrolled Penn State, 49-10. Former linebacker Ben Gedeon racked up 11 tackles, and VIPER Jabrill Peppers had five tackles and a quarterback hurry.
But Barkley has only gotten better, and sophomore Khaleke Hudson is the new VIPER. Him, McCray and Bush have to ensure that Barkley doesn’t break loose for big gains.
“That’s something we pride ourselves on,” Bush said. “You know, they’re going to get those three- or five-yard (runs), but as long as they’re not breaking 20-yard runs consistently, we’re going to be fine.”
Michigan’s defense has shut down opponents’ running backs so far. It has allowed just 2.64 yard per carry and has given up only three rushing touchdowns.
The Wolverines should also take notes out of some fellow Big Ten teams’ playbooks.
Two weeks ago, Northwestern completely eliminated Barkley from the game in the first half despite ultimately losing, 31-7.
For the first 30 minutes in Evanston, Barkley ran just eight times for negative one yards. The Wildcats filled the gaps and packed the line of scrimmage to contain Barkley, but Penn State was able to spread the ball through its quarterback Trace McSorley and found ways to score through other components.
Northwestern couldn’t contain Barkley all game though, and he ended up scoring a 53-yard touchdown run.
Another opponent, Indiana, held Barkley to just 56 rushing yards.
“When you play an offense like (Penn State), you have to try and eliminate those explosive plays,” said fifth-year senior defensive tackle Maurice Hurst. “You have to shut down two really dynamic players in McSorley and (Barkley).
“(Barkley) just seems to get better every single year. We identified him as someone who was a really good player even as a freshman. Someone that we thought would be a top-10 pick one day.”
He is well on his way to the high ranks of the NFL Draft, and if Michigan wants to pull off the upset, stopping him is the first step.