Before NFL Gets Them, Saquon Barkley and Lamar Jackson Give College Football One Last Show

Their draft stocks may be moving in opposite directions, but Barkley and Jackson were basically equals in entertainment value on the collegiate level.
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Reasonable people can agree that Louisville’s Lamar Jackson and Penn State’s Saquon Barkley will be right to make Saturday the final day of their respective college careers, 2,000 miles apart. Both juniors spent the entire fall on the Heisman Trophy short list before ceding the floor to Baker Mayfield, and two days before Mayfield’s Oklahoma team took the field at the Rose Bowl, each transcendent talent got one last chance to seize the national stage before entering the gauntlet of scrutiny from NFL draft analysts this spring.

Right on cue, both players did something incredible, producing individual efforts that reminded the college football world how sorely they’ll be missed.

Jackson played one of his worst games of a frustrating season, tossing four interceptions, overcooking several other downfield throws and taking six sacks en route to a 13-of-31 day through the air for 171 yards and two touchdowns. He also ripped off a 13-yard touchdown run on a read-option keeper, assaulting the ankles of Mississippi State defensive back Johnathan Abram and side-stepping a diving tackler before slipping into the end zone.

That run put Jackson alongside Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick as the only players in FBS history to have 50 passing and 50 rushing TDs in their careers, but it wasn’t enough to make up for his errors, nor for a beleaguered Cardinals defense that allowed true freshman QB Keytaon Thompson to lead Mississippi State to a 31–27 comeback win in the TaxSlayer Bowl.

Saturday hung a lantern on the inconsistencies as a passer that will drag Jackson’s draft stock below that of consensus top QB prospects Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen, but it also—if only briefly—served as a reminder of how dangerous he can be against any level of competition.

Barkley was kept on a pitch count by the Penn State coaching staff in the Nittany Lions’ 35–28 Fiesta Bowl win over Washington, carrying the ball 18 times for 137 yards and two scores and adding seven receptions for 38 yards. But the bulk of his day came in one trademark 92-yard scamper, in which he victimized Huskies safety JoJo McIntosh, who thought he had an angle to make a play until Barkley hit the accelerator and blew past him down the sideline.

The rest of Barkley’s day—45 yards on 17 carries without that highlight-reel run—called to mind most of his 2017 campaign, in which opponents threw waves of defenders into the box to limit the daylight available to him, leaving him with a season-ending stat line fit for mere mortals: 1,271 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground. But pitch counts and defensive schemes aside, his bruising effort in a game with no national title implications no doubt left all NFL eyes trained on Glendale just as impressed as they were coming into December.

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For all the hand-wringing over top prospects skipping their bowl games, neither player’s status for his season finale was ever in much doubt. Barkley was open about his commitment to the Penn State team he was the centerpiece of as the regular season wound down (though the Nittany Lions did limit his touches); Jackson would have bucked a precedent that has compelled most top quarterback prospects (when healthy) to play in their bowl games, no matter how meaningless, as an affirmation of their leadership qualities.

The outcomes of their 2017 finales differed, and their draft stocks may be trending in opposite directions, but Saturday reinforced that if for some reason Barkley and Jackson fail to find the right situation at the next level, they’ll always have a place in college football among the most entertaining players in recent memory.