COLUMBUS, Ohio — Urban Meyer is as prone to hyperbole as any football coach, but everything he says about Penn State tailback Saquon Barkley just might be true.
The Ohio State coach made a bold statement or two this week about the Heisman Trophy front-runner, who is the first Penn State player ever to gain 3,000 career rushing yards and 1,000 career receiving yards. The big junior likely will become the school’s all-time leading rusher by the end of the season. Strong and quick, he makes defenses jittery trying to account for him on every play. Just ask Michigan.
“I’d be careful to say this, but he’s as good an all-purpose running back as we’ve seen,” Meyer said. “And that’s 30 years (in coaching). No disrespect (intended) for the great running backs. You have different ways of bottling up great running backs. It’s hard, especially this guy, really hard.”
The Buckeyes haven’t had much success so far containing Barkley. In two games against Ohio State, he has run for 293 yards on 38 carries.
Part of the problem, Meyer said, is that Penn State uses Barkley in imaginative ways to create “matchup nightmares” for the defense.
For example, on the Nittany Lions’ second play from scrimmage last week, Barkley took a direct snap, faked a handoff to quarterback Trace McSorley, cut left while linebackers followed McSorley and romped untouched through Michigan defenders for a 69-yard touchdown. He ran for another score and also caught a TD pass in the 42-13 Penn State win.
Now it’s Ohio State’s turn to figure out how to stop Barkley. No. 2 Penn State visits the No. 6 Buckeyes on Saturday amid the hoopla that ESPN’s College GameDay always brings to town. There is a revenge story line, too. Last year, No. 2 Ohio State went to Happy Valley and was knocked off its perch by then-unranked Penn State 24-21.
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The Buckeyes were stunned. This year, there is no lack of respect. Ohio State is coming off a bye week, so Meyer and Co. got to watch Barkley pad his Heisman resume on TV Saturday night.
Buckeyes defenders say the predictable things about stopping Barkley — know where he is all the time, maintain gap discipline, hit him hard when possible.
“Always be aware of where he’s at, know where he is every play, every down,” Buckeyes linebacker Jerome Baker said. “That’s just pure respect.”
It’s not that complicated if you listen to defensive end Tyquan Lewis.
“Just be disciplined and hit him,” he said.
“He can do it all,” Baker said. “He can block, he can run, he can jump over you, he can jump through you. Me personally, I just love to watch him play. I’m definitely excited to play against him.”
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Excited may not be the first word that comes to defensive coordinator Greg Schiano’s mind. He calls Barkley “a once-in-10-year guy.”
“When he changes direction, he goes from zero to 60,” Schiano said. “He’s something.”
This will be Barkley’s second trip to Columbus. The first one did not go well for Penn State — 38-10 Buckeyes. But against an Ohio State team with Ezekiel Elliott, Joey Bosa and plethora of future NFL draft picks, Barkley as a freshman might have been the best player on the field. He ran for 194 yards when nothing else was working for the Nittany Lions.
Barkley said he was “kind of in awe” of those Buckeyes. This year’s version is impressive, too.
“They’re very athletic. They move well. They’re fast,” Barkley said Wednesday night after practice in State College, Pennsylvania. “Defensive line’s very aggressive. Nick Bosa, it’s like you’re playing his older brother all over again.”
Led by a talented and deep defensive line, the Buckeyes are holding opponents to an average of just under 3 yards per carry. Defensive end Sam Hubbard said line coach Larry Johnson — a former Penn State assistant whose son Larry Jr. is a former All-American running back at the school — takes personal pride in stopping elite ball carriers.
“That’s something he’s been preaching, and we have a big challenge,” Hubbard said. “(Barkley) is a special player, makes his offensive line look great just finding any holes, making opportunities where there are none.”
Keying on Barkley is difficult because Penn State also has a smart, dual-threat quarterback in McSorley (1,879 passing yards, 14 TDs), who ran for three scores himself last week against Michigan. Then there’s Mike Gesicki, the 6-foot-6 tight end and former prep volleyball standout who’s adept at out-jumping defensive backs to catch balls McSorley tosses up for grabs.
“The biggest challenge,” Baker said, “is so many weapons.”