At the end of the third quarter of the No. 4 Michigan football team’s blowout victory over Penn State, the Nittany Lions had a pedestrian 121 total yards of offense. The more astounding part of that statistic, though, was that running back Saquon Barkley had 131 of them.
That’s not a typo — Barkley was outgaining the rest of his team 131 yards to negative-10. Until wide receiver Chris Godwin added a fourth-quarter touchdown later in the game, the sophomore running back appeared to be the only functioning part of an offense that fell victim to six sacks and 13 tackles for loss.
As a result, other than perhaps quarterback Trace McSorley, Barkley was the player with the biggest target on his back for the Michigan defense all afternoon.
“We knew that Barkley was one of the best players, if not the best player on the offensive side,” said senior defensive end Chris Wormley. “So we knew when we shut down the run, we could get to the quarterback with blitzes and different things that (defensive coordinator Don) Brown has us do.”
The defensive line ended up following that plan to the letter, holding the dangerous runner to just 3.9 yards per carry out of the backfield. Barkley did rip off a 33-yard run early in the third quarter to kickstart a drive that put Penn State on the scoreboard, but the Wolverines tackled him for a loss three times and didn’t allow another run longer than six yards.
The Nittany Lions’ offensive line, a work in progress that has frequently struggled to protect its quarterback in recent years, was mostly ineffective against one of the best defensive fronts in the country. As a result, Barkley often found himself on the receiving end of big multi-man tackles after half of Michigan’s defensive line successfully broke through.
“That’s a heck of a good back,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “Saquon Barkley is a good football player. He got out, got a couple (big plays) — he showed that a few times. But for the most part, our guys were there and swarming. They were coming two, three, four at a time. I thought it was impressive.”
With the run game proving futile, Barkley found a better way to beat the Wolverines: rolling out of the backfield and using his hands. In the first half, he caught two passes and found open space to rack up a total of 47 yards. Only one other receiver even had positive yardage for the Nittany Lions in that timeframe.
Knowing that Barkley was probably the only player who could beat them, Michigan’s defensive players went into the locker room and decided that they needed to take away that part of his game as well.
“We focused on that at halftime,” said senior linebacker Ben Gedeon. “We knew he’s a good receiver, he can go out of the backfield. As linebackers, in our man coverage stuff, we had to kind of take the air out of him.”
At first, that plan didn’t work out so well for the Wolverines, as Barkley took a 19-yard reception into the red zone on Penn State’s first drive, only narrowly being forced out of bounds at the 7-yard line. The next two times Barkley caught the ball, though, Gedeon was ready for him, teaming up with senior safety Delano Hill and then redshirt junior defensive tackle Maurice Hurst to hit Barkley quickly and hold him to gains of just five and six yards, respectively.
Even with Barkley’s few big plays, the outcome of the game was never really in doubt. But with No. 11 Wisconsin coming to Ann Arbor next week and bringing in talented running back Corey Clement, neutralizing Barkley should prove to be a good warmup for a defense that was otherwise barely tested on Saturday.