Ohio State needs no introduction to Penn State running back Saquon Barkley.
Defensive coordinator Greg Schiano called him a “once in [every] 10-year” player. Linebacker Jerome Baker said “the dude’s a monster.” Head coach Urban Meyer said he is as good as any all-purpose running back he has seen in his 30 years of coaching.
Two seasons ago, the Buckeyes got a first-hand look at Barkley when the electric then-freshman took 26 carries 194 yards. In last year’s upset of Ohio State, he carried the ball just 12 times for 99 yards.
This year, Barkley has positioned himself as a Heisman Trophy frontrunner. He has 117 carries for 757 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on the ground to go along with a team-leading 32 catches for 448 yards and three receiving scores. Barkley has returned one kick for a touchdown this year, the first of his career. He even threw for a touchdown against Indiana.
“I just like watching him, honestly,” Baker said with a smile. “I’m very excited to go against him because he can do it all. Pass block, run routes, he can definitely run the ball, jump over you, run through you.”
As Meyer noted, there is nothing Barkley doesn’t do well. At 5-foot-11, 230 pounds, the junior has the strength to power through arm tackles and the speed to turn the corner and blow past defenders. Schiano said Barkley’s strength, speed and vision impressed him, but his “incredible ability to change direction on a dime” impresses him most.
“And it’s not a little guy that’s changing,” Schiano said. “Sometimes you see little scat backs at 175 pounds that can stop on a dime and change direction. This is a big man doing it. You’re not going to arm tackle this guy. So when he changes direction, he goes from zero to 60.”
Barkley will need to use that shiftiness to succeed against a stout Buckeye defense Saturday.
Ohio State has not had an issue against the run. It held its last two opponents, Nebraska and Maryland, to 2.8 and 1.2 yards per carry, respectively. Only Army, which runs a triple option, and UNLV, which played half the game against Ohio State’s backups, have rushed for more than 2.9 yards per carry.
But the Buckeyes have not and will not face a running back as talented as Barkley, a likely top-10 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
To corrall Barkley, redshirt junior defensive end Sam Hubbard said it will require more than one player to bring down the back.
“I think that if we stay fundamentally sound in our gaps and don’t try and make big plays and make him come to us and then once someone gets some hands on him, the rest of the bullets come flying, it’s going to take a group effort,” Hubbard said.
Hubbard said defensive line coach Larry Johnson takes personal pride in stopping teams from running the ball down Ohio State’s throat, especially at Ohio Stadium. Redshirt senior defensive end Tyquan Lewis said the line must be disciplined to stuff Barkley, but more importantly, it must play at its physical peak.
“You have to hit people, that’s the thing,” Lewis said. “You have to eliminate people. You have to find ways to eliminate what they do best and just, you know, you have to run and hit.”
The issue teams face when trying to defend Barkley is even when they think they have the formula stopping his runs, he can beat them in the passing game. Meyer said Barkley’s receiving ability separates him from other great running backs. Barkley often motions out and lines up as a receiver. Against Iowa, he caught 12 passes for 94 yards, powering the Nittany Lions to a last-second 21-19 win.
In his last 28 games, Barkley has not caught passes in just four games. Though Barkley has finished without a catch in both his games against the Buckeyes, he will likely end the streak when Penn State faces off with the Scarlet and Gray at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
With the Nittany Lions frequently shifting Barkley and tight end Mike Gesicki around to different positions, a multitude of defenders will likely match up with the back. In last week’s game against Michigan, Penn State’s offense managed to have Barkley matched up against a linebacker. Baker wants to make sure he gets his chance.
“I take it as a one-on-one competition to see who’s better,” Baker said. “That’s a great player, for sure. I’m excited to go against him, definitely guard him one-on-one. You’ve just really got to see who’s better and go out there and compete.”
From rushing to receiving to returning, there is nothing Barkley can’t do.
Ohio State knows that. This is its third matchup against him. But he might give the Buckeyes a harsh reintroduction Saturday afternoon.