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  • Penn State has cruised in two straight games without monster performances from its Heisman frontrunner, but that formula won't last for long.
By Joan Niesen
October 07, 2017

After managing just 56 yards on 20 carries in Week 5 against Indiana, Saquon Barkley had rushed for a net of zero yards through the first 40 minutes against Northwestern. Then with help from his trademark jump cut, Barkley ripped off a 53-yard touchdown run that helped Penn State pull away in an eventual 31–7 win in Evanston, the Heisman favorite’s first gain of more than eight yards in two weeks.​ He finished with just 75 yards on the ground (4.7 per carry) and 84 total yards on Saturday to help the Nittany Lions stayed perfect on the season.

Penn State led 10–0 going into the break, but Northwestern made a point of containing the Big Ten’s most dangerous offensive weapon in the first half, limiting Barkley to a net loss of one yard on his first eight carries. The Wildcats could only keep that up for so long: Barkley scored two of his team’s four touchdowns (his first was a one-yard leap over a pile on the goal line) and looked more like the player who wowed college football through the first four weeks of the season in the game’s second half.

Going into Saturday, Barkley was the Vegas favorite to win the Heisman Trophy at 7-to-4 odds, and a couple quiet afternoons on the ground won’t threaten that. As his 221 all-purpose yards against the Hoosiers last week proved, Barkley finds a way to make an impact when he isn’t ripping off huge gains on the ground—a week ago, Barkley took the opening kick 98 yards to the house and threw a 16-yard touchdown pass on a trick play in the fourth quarter. That said, Penn State needs to get its running game going in the upcoming bye week because its margin for error in the Big Ten has run out: In two weeks the Nittany Lions host No. 7 Michigan in State College, then travel to No. 10 Ohio State the next weekend. Another slow start could leave them in too big of a hole against the lurking top-10 teams, and a loss in either game would be a big setback to the Nittany Lions’ College Football Playoff dreams.

Penn State has been impressive early this season, though it has played, well, no one, and against gritty defenses like the Wolverines’ and Buckeyes’, it’ll need to muster a more balanced offense than it has displayed in its last two games, although both went down in the record books as relatively stress-free victories. Against Indiana: 39 yards on the ground, compared to 331 in the air. At Northwestern: 95 rushing yards, 286 passing—a better ratio, but still somewhat lopsided.

In the absence of a steadier stream of highlights courtesy of Barkley, Penn State is winning with its defense. Saturday’s win was a shutout until the final two minutes, and the Nittany Lions have already blanked two opponents, but they can’t count on those kinds of numbers as they head into the meat of their Big Ten schedule, where they need Barkley and their running game to spark the rest of the offense.

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