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Mark Wogenrich | The Morning Call | December 29, 2016

Penn State's Saquon Barkley seeks the next step of his career at the Rose Bowl

  Nittany Lions running back Saquon Barkley (26) celebrates after catching a touchdown pass.

Soon after the Rose Bowl matchup was announced, Penn State's Saquon Barkley began watching highlights of former USC running back Reggie Bush. Since then, Barkley hasn't been able to stop.

"Every night before I go to bed, I've been watching his highlights," the Whitehall High graduate said recently. "That's the kind of player you want to become as a running back. If I'm able to have that kind of impact in this game, that would be special."

Barkley, whose fifth-ranked Nittany Lions meet Bush's former Southern California team in the Rose Bowl, has another opportunity to make a national impression Jan. 2. Penn State arrived in California on Monday to begin preparing for its first Rose Bowl since 2009, and Barkley was eager to be there.

The sophomore running back is making his first trip to California, which he hoped might be a scouting venture as well. "I want to live in California one day," he said.

But of all the places to visit, Barkley said he's most eager to see, and play in, the Rose Bowl. That's what prompted him to find clips of Bush, the former USC back who played in the iconic 2006 national championship game against Texas.

"I'm most looking forward to playing in the Rose Bowl," Barkley said. "That place is historic. It's special."

Barkley, the Big Ten offensive player of the year who rushed for 1,302 yards and 16 touchdowns, already has drawn significant attention from the ninth-ranked Trojans, who made him a focus of pre-bowl practices. USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast called Barkley difficult to tackle, and head coach Clay Helton cited Barkley's size (220 pounds) and rushing yards as obvious points of emphasis.

"You look at Barkley and studying him more, he's probably the most complete back we've seen this year to date," Helton said.

Further, Helton cited another skill of Barkley's that concerns USC. The back caught 23 passes, three for touchdowns, this season as a primary component of Penn State's passing game. That was something Barkley worked on heavily during preseason camp.

Among the plays Barkley drilled most was the wheel route, in which he lines up in the backfield before circling toward the sideline and downfield on a designed pass play. Penn State ran the play effectively all season, notably against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.

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Barkley beat Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Watt for an 18-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, the eventual winning score of Penn State's 38-31 victory. The play relied on generating a mismatch between Barkley and the defense but also made use of the back's preseason training.

To become what he called a "more complete back," Barkley studied the pass-blocking and receiving skills of other nationally prominent backs, such as Stanford's Christian McCaffrey. He drilled with Penn State's receivers to perfect making the over-the-shoulder catch required in the wheel route.

The matchup is the easy part: Barkley has beaten linebackers, and even a defensive lineman, with the route this season. The catch, he said, requires the most concentration.

"I personally feel that, if a linebacker is playing man coverage on me on that wheel route, and it's speed on speed, I don't think anyone is capable of staying with me," Barkley said. "... I just really have to lock in and focus on the catch, because a lot of times it's over-the-shoulder, and that's not easy.

"For [the receivers], that catch comes naturally. They do it every single day. But for running backs it's not as easy, because you don't work on it every day."

Barkley thought Penn State deserved a shot at the College Football Playoff after winning nine consecutive games, including the Big Ten title. He called Penn State a team that could compete for the national championship.

The Lions have put that behind them, however, and enter their third day of bowl-week practice Thursday eager to prove themselves.

"It's the Rose Bowl, you know. You've been watching it since you were a little kid," Barkley said. "It's the granddaddy of them all. Being able to play in a Rose Bowl is spectacular. One of our goals was to win the Big Ten championship and play for a national championship, and we came up short of that. But the Rose Bowl is not a bad second option, to be honest."

This article is written by Mark Wogenrich from The Morning Call and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.

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