A loss at Iowa on Saturday would have been crushing for Penn State in many ways.But by a matter of inches, Penn State won the game on the last play, 21-19, thanks to a seven-yard Trace McSorley touchdown strike to Jawun Johnson over the fingertips of a defender. The game-winning score prevented not only the crushing feeling of the No. 4 team losing in an early-season upset, but also the feeling that Saquon Barkley's all-time great individual effort would have happened in a loss.
Instead, because McSorley found Johnson in the back of the end zone, Barkley's night will go down as one of the greatest efforts in Penn State history, and perhaps a defining night in pursuit of the Heisman Trophy and a history-making Happy Valley career.
As I wrote in August, Barkley is part of a Penn State program that has had more running backs selected in the first round of the NFL Draft than any other school since 1970. It has had eight running backs finish in the top 10 of the Heisman Trophy race, including 1973 winner John Cappelletti, 1994 runner-up Ki-Jana Carter and top-five finishers Lydell Mitchell (1971), Curtis Enis (1997) and Larry Johnson (2002). Two Penn State running backs, Franco Harris and Lenny Moore, are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
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Penn State cannot match USC's deserved Tailback U label, because it hasn't had the national star power, including five Trojans tailback who have won the Heisman. But the Nittany Lions have their own illustrious history at the position, so much so that there's never been a definitive answer to the question of who is the best running back in Penn State history. Strictly based on college performance, Curt Warner -- best career, a big part of PSU's first national title team in 1982 -- is probably the most popular answer. But Cappelletti won the school's only Heisman, Carter was the best player on Penn State's best offense, Johnson had the best statistical season and so on.
By the end of this season, Barkley may end the debate. In fact, the debate may already be over after Saturday. Anybody who watched Penn State's dramatic win knows why:
Saquon Barkley is a cheat code. pic.twitter.com/h113EBSHRe- Alex Roux (@arouxBTN) September 24, 2017
Barkley rushed 28 times for 211 yards and a touchdown, caught 12 passes for 94 yards and returned three kicks for 53 yards. He totaled a Penn State record 358 all-purpose yards, with 305 on offense, against an Iowa defense that came out with a strong game plan to limit big plays. The Hawkeyes got a lot of pressure on Trace McSorley and took away the Lions' trademark deep passes, but even the best game plan can't necessarily stop Barkley. Even when he is contained, he's close to a lock to make something happen on his own, thanks to his ability to make cuts that nobody else in college football can make.
If that wasn't enough, he played key role in pass blocking on McSorley's winning touchdown pass, picking up a blitzer to help give his quarterback space to throw.
Barkley is 230 pounds with game-breaking speed and, especially, lateral agility, giving him a rare combination of power, explosiveness and elusiveness that could make him a top-five pick in the NFL Draft and one of the best college football running backs in years. It could give him one of the most memorable seasons in years, too, as he tries to become only the fourth running back since the turn of the century to win the Heisman, a group that includes only Reggie Bush, Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry.
Through four games, Barkley is second in the Big Ten in rushing yards with 518, two behind Ohio State's J.K. Dobbins. He leads the Big Ten in receptions (23), receiving yards (335) and touchdowns (six). He leads the nation in yards from scrimmage on offense (213.3 per game) and all-purpose yards (253.3 per game). He has six offensive plays of at least 40 yards, according to cfbstats.com.
Sports-Reference's Play Index tool says that Barkley is the only player since at least 2000 to have over 500 rushing yards and 300 receiving yards in his first four games, and he is the only player in that time to have 200 rushing yards and 10 catches in one game. Only six players since 2000 have finished an entire season with over 700 rushing yards and 700 receiving yards. Barkley's receiving production is likely to slow down, but he's well on his way to rare territory and is also 843 rushing yards away from breaking Penn State's career mark.
Whether McSorley completed that final pass to Johnson didn't change how Barkley played in the previous 59 minutes and 56 seconds. Fair or not, however, it did alter how Barkley's night will be remembered, as the game went from a crushing loss that Penn State would want to forget to an instant classic not to be forgotten. McSorley to Johnson won the game to cap a drive for the ages, but Barkley was the story of the entire night.
Because of the win, Barkley now has the college football world's full attention as he pursues a history-making junior season.