Part human, part amazing, Saquon Barkley cemented his status as the Heisman Trophy favorite on Saturday night, rampaging all over Michigan’s illustrious defense.
Here’s the thing: He’s not just excellent. Saquon Barkley is perfect. He’s not simply an all-time great talent. He’s as complete a back who has ever played the game.
Stop-and-go speed. Preternatural vision. Zig zagging, wiggling, “what-did-I-just-witness” moves that make a crowd go “ohhh.” He has it all. As a runner, receiver, returner, and, heck, even as a pass protector, Barkley is elite in every facet of the game.
Watching Barkley rush, truck, and shimmy-shake his way through a defense is more of an experience than it is an evaluation. Watching history formed in real-time is cool.
He’s now racked up over 1,400 all-purpose yards and 12 touchdowns in seven games this season. Yet, the video game numbers alone don’t do him justice. It’s how he’s done it that is the most interesting thing. Let’s break down some of the key plays from PSU’s dominant win over Michigan, and look at what makes Barkley special.
Fresh wrinkles to the offense
Barkley bottled up all of his perfection and, along with quarterback Trace McSorley and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, unleashed hell on Don Brown’s Michigan defense, which even after last week is ranked 11th nationally in rush defense.
The Wolverines entered their matchup at Penn State allowing just 86 rushing yards per game. It took Barkley just 3 carries to obliterate that number and effectively bury Michigan on the prime-time stage.
Three carries. 89 yards. Two touchdowns.
Moorhead, McSorley, wide receiver DaeShean Hamilton, tight end Mike Gesicki, and Barkley, is the best skill-talent-coach combination in the nation.
Moorhead’s game plan was a special one. It centered around the same premise the Nittany Lions have focused on all year: Get Barkley 1-on-1 in space. However, they spiced up the traditional plan and sprinkled in some fresh, never-before-seen wrinkles that confounded the typically well-disciplined Michigan defense — one built around limiting explosive plays.
Moorhead opened the game up with a unique wildcat look:
Barkley displaced McSorley at quarterback. But rather than have the QB jog over to the sideline and take up a position as a decoy, who could possibly run a route or some kind of trick play, the pair simply switched positions.
McSorley flanked Barkley as a running back, and the pair ran one of their staples: A veer-option. Barkley stuck the ball into McSorley’s belly, rode the option laterally as the backside guard pulled, and read a defender before deciding whether to leave the ball with McSorley or pull it for himself.
It was a smart way of getting the ball directly into the hands of the best player on the field, while causing some confusion. Barkley pulled the ball and housed it for a 69-yard, game-opening score.
It sounds simple. But it was an intricate design.
The entire right side of the line — from the center out — down blocked, while the backside guard pulled around to seal off Michigan’s left defensive end (the right side of the screen from the offensive point of view). The right-side end (left on the image above) was initially left unblocked, showing a more traditional option look in which an edge defender is blocked through a read.
Michigan ran a run-stunt — as it did all night — hoping to muddy the option picture for whomever was deciding whether to keep or give the ball. In a veer attack, the end opposite the side in which the back is set is the one typically being read, as opposed to spread-option teams who will more often read the edge to the side of the back.
The linebacker (No. 9, Mike McCray) and left end (No. 73, Maurice Hurst) ran a loop, clearing the linebacker to be unblocked, yet not be the guy who the QB (Barkley in this case) had initially read — the idea is to have that looping defender arrive “on-time” just as the quarterback has made the decision to give it.
On the backside of the play, Rashan Gary (No. 3) was unblocked, and thus acted as though he was the read defender, sitting down to force the give.
However, Penn State’s left tackle, who had initially slipped inside to help the center (he had a long way to get across as the left guard pulled), slipped back outside once the center was in position — he had originally left Gary unblocked.
That left Barkley with a clear read. His left tackle sealed one end (Gary was set deep and wide in order to act as a contain defender). While on the other side, the looping linebacker set the edge, attacking the outside shoulder in order to cut off any handoff to McSorley.
Michigan’s freshman inside linebacker Devin Bush (No. 10) read the play poorly. He fired toward the outside shoulder in order to help against any kind of give. It was an understandable mistake. Presumably the Wolverines had repped all week to take away the give (which should have been Barkley) and opt instead to deal with the quarterback pulling the ball.
Instead, with Barkley now at quarterback, the linebacker had no chance to recover as Barkley planted and exploded through a gigantic hole.
Barkley has the special ability to accelerate as he cuts.
Other backs are forced to downshift as they read the line of scrimmage, plant, then shoot away. Barkley is fluid enough to do it all in one motion — gaining speed as he cuts up field. That’s rare. It leaves linebackers (and often safeties) for dust, like the Road Runner duping Wile E. Coyote into running over the cliff.
They have no chance to recover. They must match him stride-for-stride, read the play the same way, and have the same athletic ability. If you find someone who can do that, let me know.
That ability makes Barkley one of the most explosive outside-zone runners in the game, though it’s an infrequent part of the Penn State offense (it doesn’t jive well with the rest of the offensive personnel). As the line kick-steps one way, he gets three options: Bend, bang, or bounce. Cut the ball back (bend), slam it behind a lineman (bang), or bounce the ball to the outside until the defense is able to get numbers over (bounce).
That combination of vision and burst means he’s regularly beating linebackers at the line of scrimmage, before he even gets up to their level. The NFL is now an outside-zone league. It’s part of why he’ll be as coveted as any back in modern memory once draft season rolls around.
If the play design above didn’t do enough damage, Barkley finished Bush and the filling safety (No. 14 Josh Metellus) with some nimble footwork at the line of scrimmage before exploding away and leaving everyone in his wake.
James Franklin confirmed that Penn State has been saving looks for its biggest games — Michigan, Ohio State, and a possible championship run — with the promise of more to come against the Buckeyes this week.
“We were able to put in some new looks that we haven’t shown [all season],” Franklin told reporters after the game.
Michigan was, understandably, unprepared. The defensive constructs they had worked on in order to force the ball to McSorley in option situations, instead forced the ball into the hands of the most dynamic running back in the country. Barkley made them pay.
It was an inventive tactical wrinkle from Moorhead, one that Brown’s unit struggled to adapt to all night.
The innovation didn’t stop there. The new-look wildcat (we need a new name for that Barkley-specific wrinkle) wasn’t the only deceptive tool used by Moorhead and Co. based on self-scouting.
“Lining up in empty and staying in empty, we haven’t really shown that and that was a big self-study deal. Being able to disguise which side Saquon [Barkley] was on with the motion across and then the motion across and back,” Franklin said after the game.
The offensive staff did a great job of self-scouting. Or, perhaps, they perfectly executed a grand play-calling conspiracy: Setting up one concept over and over again all season, purposefully putting it on tape so that they could exploit it themselves during the biggest matchups of the year.
If that’s the case, it takes some serious cojones — particularly when you’re in a knockdown, drag-out fight on the road at Iowa.
Again, as with everything, it’s built around Barkley’s excellence.
The Nittany Lions routinely lined up pre-snap in an empty formation. Prior to the snap, however, they would motion Barkley back into the backfield, give the defense no time to adjust, then snap the ball and run a slew of different option stuff.
It’s an excellent way for Franklin’s team to force the opposition to shift into nickel or dime — adding extra defensive backs onto the field — before running against a lighter box.
Even against Michigan, the side had explosive runs with the tactic. The Wolverines defense continually set a hard edge, had inside guys flow outside, and ran run stunts in order to try and prevent Barkley getting into the open field. McSorley exploited the vacated space all night.
Opponents are used to this by now. They’ve opted to stick with their initial play-call, regardless of where Barkley lines up in or where he motions to.
When the Nittany Lions have been in an empty set, opposing defenses have not considered Barkley as a receiving threat. They typically leave him uncovered (see the pre-snap look above). They know he’s going to flex into the backfield somewhere, right?
Not on Saturday.
Early on, like above, Moorhead ran with the same tactic: Open in empty, see if they lighten the box, motion Barkley to the backfield, run an option play. He had the Michigan staff confirming its pregame assumptions and tape study.
Yet as the game wore on, in came the wrinkle: They threw to Barkley out of empty formation! And… fouchdown.
The pre-snap picture tells the story: Michigan matched Penn State’s “11” personnel grouping — one back and one tight end. The Wolverines countered with three down linemen, three off-ball linebackers, and one linebacker/safety hybrid, the so-called “viper.”
In the initial empty look, the Wolverines walked their weakside linebacker Mike McCray (No. 9) over Barkley, albeit with a large cushion. The expectation was that Barkley would motion into the backfield, and the defense would then have a balanced 3–4 look against a running formation that featured an extra blocker (the tight end).
But Moorhead had the mismatch he wanted: Barkley on a linebacker. He took his shot.
Barkley ran a stutter-and-go, feigning that he was slowing to run an underneath route, before exploding up field. McCray bit on the fake. Barkley left the linebacker flat-footed as he zoomed by him into open grass.
McSorley had Barkley in acres of space. The back hauled in a circus catch to effectively seal the game.
Penn State ran hundreds of snaps in order to set up that shot play. Once his number was called, Barkley made it count.
The Michigan game was a great example of the marriage between a great player and great play-caller. They serve one another. Barkley makes those around him better (and helps earn Moorhead titles like “genius”) by drawing a ton of attention, and creating something out of nothing. And Moorhead has routinely crafted ways to get his most dynamic player out in space, where he can make plays.
But while being put in a position to succeed is no doubt part of his success, Barkley’s combination of vision and off-the-charts athleticism is what makes him a truly elite player.
Barkley as a runner
It’s tough to categorize Barkley as a runner. After all, this is a 230-pounder running a 4.3. Those guys don’t come around too often.
He isn’t a slash-and-kick zone-runner. He isn’t a head-down pounder. He isn’t a space back. He’s all of them, wrapped up in a powerlifter’s body. Size, speed, power, he truly has it all.
Between the tackles, he’s a shifty runner. Moorhead’s system uses a ton of zone-blocking combinations and tackle-options (pulling the tackles rather than guards) to distort the levels of the defensive front on inside runs.
Rather than the offensive line charging off the ball, slanting one way, or slip blocking (linemen waiting on linebackers before moving) — typically forcing the running back to attack a certain gap — the decision-making is left in the hands of Barkley. The offensive line’s sole job is to disrupt the front, not power open Alabama-like holes. Barkley and the option elements will take care of creating those.
Of course, if needed, Barkley could run with that battering-ram approach. But he’s hunting for 50 yards at a time, not 5. All he needs are little creases to go work.
Once he’s at the line, he’s a wizard. His patience, vision, and ability to slink his body in and out of the smallest of creases is magical. Defenders line him up, then, poof, he’s gone. It’s a world-class disappearing act.
He can run over you. He can run around you. But he’s at his uncanny best when he’s hitting a defender with that Shakira-style wiggle before zipping up field.
How do you stop that? You don’t.
There are no words in the Scouting Parlance Dictionary to describe Barkley’s body feints. It’s part Barry Sanders, part Ezekiel Elliott. You just feel a visceral “wait, what?” reaction every time he stops his body in mid-air, while linebackers and safeties go flying off the screen like it’s some kind of comedy sketch. It’s as though he hits pause on the game, repositions his body, then scoots off in the opposite direction as he hits play on the remote.
And here’s the thing. That’s not just an aesthetic delight. It means he never takes a clean shot. It’s similar to Christian McCaffrey while he was at Stanford. Barkley has such a low strike zone (given his size and pad level) that when you add in the elusiveness on top, it’s damn near impossible to size him up and land a big hit. Guys just kind of brush into him and fall away or must wait for support.
Then there’s the outside runs, where he may be, dare I say it, even better.
All of his agility and make-a-guy-miss goodness makes him a perfect fit for Penn State’s pace-and-space attack. He routinely finds himself in 1-on-1 matchups on the perimeter where he’s able to turn on the jets, hit the corner, and burn right by defenders.
He has this funky way of modulating his speed so that defenders in the open field are constantly misreading angles and either overpursuing or not getting across in time. Watch the terrible angle Michigan’s safety takes to him on this speed-option touchdown run from Saturday:
It’s a similarly rare and indefinable quality to the one Herschel Walker had: He doesn’t always look like he’s flying, but he’s constantly pulling away from people. Michigan’s safety flat-out underestimated the speed at which Barkley was moving.
There’s an extra quality, too: His contact balance. Barkley runs through, and relishes, contact.
The best of the best always find a way to keep their feet churning through contact, bounce off opponents, remain balanced, and pick up extra yards. For all his slaloming runs in the open field, Barkley also generates freakish power. Sometimes that means knocking back a defender. But he also has an unparalleled ability to jump over defenders in short quarters. Whether it’s sprawling arms, a malaise of bodies on the ground, or just 1-on-1 in the open field, he can harness all of that weight-room strength and keep his feet churning.
Not only that, but he constantly lands the damn thing. He’s like a cat: Drop him from any angle, no matter how awkward, and somehow he lands on his feet. And after all that he will accelerate away after leaping over another human being, just for good measure.
It’s just unfair.
Barkley in the passing game
His impact is not just as a runner, either. Barkley is equally as effective in the passing game. And I’m not just talking about screens or quick throws off jet motions that act as an extension of the run game (pace-and-space!). No, he is a quality route-runner who’s capable of lining up in the slot (like the stutter-and-go example earlier), flexing out wide, or releasing vertically out of the backfield (wheel routes remain undefeated!).
Option routes are where he truly excels, though. McCaffrey was the most nuanced option-route runner I’ve ever seen. Barkley comes pretty close.
He does an excellent job of setting up linebackers at the top of his routes. His job on option plays is to read the leverage of the linebacker, while reading the safeties at the same time: Is it an open (two-deep safeties) or closed (one-deep safety) look?
Based on whether it’s zone or man from the linebacker, he either sits his route down (zone) or pushes horizontally (man) — inside or out. That’s where the safety read comes in. If it’s a two-deep look, he pushes up toward the middle and splits them. And if it’s a single-deep look, he drives towards the boundary.
It’s not easy. Yet Barkley shines when he’s given options — just as he does in the run game. Once the ball is in his hands, he’s as deadly as ever after the catch.
Then there’s the stuff no one cares about. Barkley helps McSorley out massively in pass protection.
Penn State’s quarterback has grown this season. But he remains more equipped to take off as a runner or make more simplistic throws. He’s not making tight-window, anticipation throws from a muddied pocket with any kind of regularity.
Barkley works hard to keep his quarterback clean. He isn’t the most technically sound, but he competes each and every snap; that’s typically half the battle with superstar running backs.
Barkley has shown he can anchor against power rushers. He slumps into a low stance and uses his tree-trunk thighs to absorb wicked blows from pass rushers with a significant weight advantage.
There’s nuance there, too. Barkley isn’t a trick-or-treat protector. He’s not just looking to deliver highlight plays. He’s there to do a job. And he does it excellently. Barkley is happy to slide out against an edge rusher and help them around the corner, clearing room for McSorley to slide and escape pressure.
Those viral clips of Barkley squatting close to 650 pounds (that’s a real thing that I just typed) aren’t about his explosive runs. It’s about being the most complete back in the country.
Indeed, his dedication as a pass blocker led to one of the signature plays Penn State’s season: Keeping McSorley clean as he found a receiver on the final play of the game to beat Iowa.
Saquon Barkley creating something out of nothing
As the saying goes: Barkley is a cheat code. He makes the impossible possible. You know those generational players you say you’ll tell those fictional kids about? Add Saquon to the list.
Special players are able to make something out of nothing. Remember Johnny Manziel dropping a snap, jumping over his own linemen, failing to jump over them, pirouetting, and then finding a receiver for a touchdown, on the road, in Tuscaloosa? Barkley is doing similarly football-defying things on a bi-weekly basis.
Check out the freeze frame below:
That’s Barkley up against three Iowa defenders. The Hawkeyes have him hemmed in along the sideline on a play that was designed to go to the opposite flank. McSorley found his back on the checkdown and, well, here we are. It’s a stuff, right? A 2-yard, tackle breaking gain at most, yeah?
Nope. He got a first down. I said: HE GOT A FIRST DOWN!
Then there’s this, later in the same game:
A clearly tired Barkley, who was already up to 29 carries and 12 receptions at that point, somehow conjured the energy and magic to put a shimmy on Iowa All-America linebacker Josey Jewell in the flat, zoom past him, and find the sideline.
I mean, come on. That’s just unfair.
He got his team down inside the 10, then on the next set of downs he got the crucial block that gave McSorley the time to hit the last second, fourth-and-goal throw.
Saquon Barkley’s off-ball impact
Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games. But great players don’t just make plays for themselves. They make everyone around them better. Their off-ball impact can be just as important as their on-ball one.
We often discuss this by a receiver drawing double coverage, or acting on a clear-out concept in which he drags away a safety deep and clears out voids underneath for his teammates to scurry into. Or, we’ll talk about a quarterback “making everyone around him better.”
No player in the nation has had as big an off-ball impact as Barkley has had on the Penn State offense.
I’ve touched on Barkley’s off-ball impact in pass protection, which may have been the difference between a win and a loss on that final Iowa play.
But his biggest impact has been on the team’s option principles, both running the ball and in the passing game. RPOs (run-pass options) have been easier to diagnose for McSorley. Because of this, linebackers are pinching down to stop the run whenever they see the ball slammed into Barkley’s back. More often than not those linebackers are crashing down. That gives the quarterback a mental head start. He reads the linebacker, if they crash, he flips the ball in behind.
I also noted earlier about the impact of Barkley on some of the veer-option principles Moorhead has been running. And how, as a result, huge gaps have opened for McSorley when he eventually pulls the ball and takes off as a runner — with the overwhelming threat of Barkley taking up much of the defensive construct.
That’s never truer than when Barkley is used on a ghost motion — a fake jet sweep, or any kind of motion designed to distract or reveal a coverage, rather than as a true option for him to get the ball.
Putting Barkley at quarterback with McSorley beside him was a creative wrinkle against Michigan. But until he unveiled that wrinkle, Moorhead was using jet motions to fool linebackers into overcommitting to stop the running back.
It all ties in to the use of empty formations. Prior to the Michigan game, Barkley would either motion from the slot into the backfield and reset the formation, or he fire hard on a jet sweep — either get the ball or act as decoy.
By the time Moorhead finally got around to using it against Michigan on Saturday, Brown’s linebacking corps was utterly flummoxed.
It was particularly deadly in the red zone. The hard motion forced Michigan’s linebackers and safeties to overpursue. Four defenders all flew toward the outside in order to cut off Barkley, panicked by the damage he had inflicted earlier in the game. That left McSorley free to waltz into the end zone for an easy touchdown.
No other non-quarterback in the nation has the same off-ball impact on his offense as Penn State’s running back.
Barkley’s 2017 campaign already has been special. With Ohio State on the horizon and a potential championship run ahead, it’s shaping up to be one of college football’s all-time finest.
The only time he has been bottled up for four straight quarters this year was against Indiana. It was a game in which his team was blighted by missed assignments up front, botched exchanges, and a defense that sold out entirely to stop the run, with McSorley unable to make them pay for leaving receivers 1-on-1 across the board.
And yet, the game will be remembered for Barkley’s neat pair of Heisman moments: Throwing for a touchdown, and returning the opening kickoff 98 yards for another score. That’s his most disappointing game. Think about the lunacy of that.
The best, somehow, may still be yet to come — as Moorhead and Franklin continue to trickle out some of their wackiest designs in order to take advantage of this once-in-a-generation phenom.
As we get to Heisman week and through the NFL draft process, Barkley, like all players, will be nit-picked. Bryce Love lovers will speak of East Coast bias. Anonymous scouts will find something they don’t like. And that might ratchet up if Ohio State’s defense, one that has been obliterating opponents since the early-season loss against Oklahoma, is able to condense the field like Indiana and bottle up the ground game.
But don’t listen any of it. Just sit back and revel in what you’re watching. Saquon Barkley isn’t just the best running back in the nation, he’s perfect.
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