Penn State's Barkley staying patient with sluggish run game
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) Saquon Barkley believes he can score a touchdown every time he takes a handoff.
Don't mistake the Penn State running back's confidence for arrogance. He's put plenty of evidence on tape in just 15 games to earn a growing reputation as one of the country's most dangerous backs in space.
But with each game this season, Barkley's discovering that space isn't always there in Penn State's new zone-read rushing attack that ranks near the bottom of every major statistical category. Barkley's sure if he remains persistent, more of those highlight-reel runs will come, however.
''We've got to be patient,'' Barkley said Wednesday. ''Stuff will open up and I've got to step up as a player and make more guys miss and break more tackles and we've really got to start getting our run game going because if we get the run game going, that can open up the passing game even more.''
Barkley leads the Big Ten with six rushing touchdowns but Penn State ranks last in the conference and 122nd in the nation with just over 101 rushing yards per game. Those sagging rushing numbers can be traced to the big-play back being bottled up before he even gets going.
Usually Barkley's first step is backward in Joe Moorhead's zone-read rushing attack. A delayed handoff follows and Barkley or quarterback Trace McSorley have at times been swallowed up quickly as defenders converge on the mesh point. Although his 55-yard score against Temple came on an inside zone run, Barkley's average on such plays over the last three games falls to just 1.4 yards without it.
It's a cause for concern for Penn State's offensive staff, which is committed to finding more ways to get Barkley the ball as the team prepares to face Minnesota (3-0, 0-0 Big Ten) on Saturday.
Shovel passes and pitches have made brief appearances. Barkley's also caught 10 passes thus far and direct snaps may show up in the future.
Eliminating inside zone reads isn't an option, though.
''There's a lot of different ways,'' Penn State coach James Franklin said.
Penn State has had success on the outside. Even with a delayed start, Barkley's done most of his damage over the last three games when he's been able to flank defenders. He's averaging 10.8 yards per carry on those plays, further evidence of his skill on the edge.
''He's a game-changing player,'' center Brian Gaia said.
But one that's not comfortable lobbying his coaches for more touches or criticizing a young offensive line that will likely start two freshmen guards this weekend. Like Franklin, Barkley believes a little more early physicality coupled with his own patience will open things up in the middle.
''I would say the thing that we really need to improve the most is just coming out stronger, coming out faster and starting fast,'' Barkley said. ''Physically, I think we're there. Mentally, we've really got a good grasp of the system but, especially in away games, we've been starting out really slow.''