By TRAVIS JOHNSON, Associated Press
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — When Saquon Barkley walked into the media room after No. 13 Penn State’s win on Saturday, a line of 20 to 25 reporters had already assembled at the front of the room, huddled around the running back’s usual spot.
Barkley had to wait for a path to clear before making his way over, so he stood and looked at the crowd waiting for him. When he sat down, the first questions were about the crowds that have made his job a lot tougher in the latter half of the season.
Barkley let out a sigh, his shoulders slumped and his eyes lowered to meet the deep blue desk top as he considered the numbers being revealed to him. The Heisman Trophy candidate has been held to 63 or fewer yards on the ground in each of his team’s last three games.
“I didn’t know that,” Barkley said. “But the way to get past it is continue to play the games and trust your teammates and have complete trust that your teammates are going to make plays. And when your play, your opportunity comes, you’ve got to be ready for it.”
It’s not that Barkley’s not getting those opportunities.
He has 57 total offensive touches over the last three games where Penn State’s gone 1-2 and beat Rutgers 35-6 on Saturday. But 38 percent (22) of them have gone for no more than a yard and Barkley has lost yardage on 14 of those touches.
It’s nothing new for Barkley, who experienced similar opposition at — and behind — the line of scrimmage last season.
Then, 19 percent or 33 of Barkley’s 177 carries in Big Ten games ended before he got back to the line. But that number is up to 22 percent (28 of 128 carries) though seven conference games so far and history doesn’t suggest it will get easier for Penn State’s offensive line to generate more push for a dynamic back who gets the most of his touches after quarterback Trace McSorley takes time to read the defense before deciding to hand it to him.
Penn State’s offensive line was down both starting tackles late last season and in the final three games, Barkley was dropped for losses 15 times. His numbers were further dogged when he was shaken up following a gang tackle and forced out of the regular season finale.
The line hasn’t been as good this season with starting left tackle Ryan Bates hurt and his return doesn’t seem imminent.
Still, Barkley will remain patient. He’s always had the ability to do so and hasn’t, to head coach James Franklin’s knowledge, ever shown a hint of frustration on the field or in the locker room when he’s had slow games. Barkley has attributed his focus to being brought up in a boxing family. His father Alibay was a Golden Gloves fighter and his great uncle Iran Barkley held championships in three weight classes.
“The running game is kind of like a boxing match,” Barkley said. “Throw the jab, throw the jab, throw the hook, counter and then hit them with a haymaker. We’ve weren’t in positions to make big runs like that but that haymaker could’ve been in the red zone.”
Barkley has still had an impact and landed what could’ve been devastating blows in Columbus.
He opened the Ohio State game with a 97-yard return touchdown and added a 36-yard scoring run later. Although Michigan State snapped his 15-game touchdown streak, Barkley scored twice in the red zone against the Scarlet Knights and has been a fixture in pass protection helping McSorley pass for 787 yards the last three weeks.
“Saquon’s definitely done a great job in the passing game, pass blocking and making plays when he’s able to,” Penn State wideout DaeSean Hamilton said. “I think he realizes that he doesn’t need to be frustrated because the plays are going to come, especially when you’re as good a player as he is. All he has to do is do what he’s doing and being patient, being the player that he is and those big plays will come for him.”
He’d still like to do more, however. And in the fashion that made him a national name early in his career.
“I’ve just got to take it one play at a time and trust the system, trust the scheme and when you get an opportunity, you’ve got to make a play,” Barkley said.
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