Ezekiel Elliott has just completed a phenomenal rookie season with the Dallas Cowboys. It was not too long ago when Elliott was grabbing headlines for college football. Elliott came onto the scene after winning the 2014 National Title for Ohio State. The following season, Elliott continued being one of the top running backs in college football. His most memorable game in 2015 was against Penn State as Ohio State thrashed them 38-10 in Columbus. In that game, Elliott had 27 carries, 153 rushing yards, and one rushing touchdown. One of the few bright spots for Penn State that night was their true freshman running back, Saquon Barkley.
Saquon Barkley: 2017 Heisman Trophy Candidate
Lurking in the shadows of the Heisman candidate in Elliott, Barkley compiled 26 carries for 194 yards. At that moment, it was evident that Barkley had a bright future ahead of him. After successful freshman and sophomore seasons, Barkley has a huge opportunity to not only become a top pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, but also win the Heisman Trophy for the 2017 season.
“He’s a first rounder,” Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said of the 5’11”, 223-pound running back prior to Ohio State playing Penn State this past season. “You won’t stop him.” Ohio State certainly did have a hard time stopping Barkley that night. Although he did not compile as many carries against Ohio State as he did the previous season, Barkley still contributed 12 carries for 99 rushing yards. That game placed Penn State on national notice as well. They upset second ranked Ohio State that night 24-21 in Happy Valley. Most fans believe that upset was the turning point of Penn State’s season. Other fans believe it was the game against Minnesota that really started turning things around for the Nittany Lions.
After a 2-2 start, things were looking gloom and doom in Happy Valley as Penn State was losing to Minnesota in overtime 26-23. On Penn State’s first possession in overtime, head coach James Franklin knew exactly what to do. Quarterback Trace McSorley handed the ball off to Barkley on a zone-read from the 25-yard line. After two missed tackles, Barkley jumped into the end zone and Penn State went on to win the game 29-26.
Penn State would not lose another regular season game after that. The team went on to win their next eight games, including the upset victory over Ohio State and defeating Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. During that stretch, Barkley compiled 161 carries, 922 rushing yards, and nine rushing touchdowns. That stretch also included two performances in which he ran for over 200 rushing yards against Maryland and Purdue.
Barkley’s most epic performance of the 2016 season was during the Rose Bowl against USC. Despite Penn State losing 52-49, Barkley had 25 carries for 194 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns. He compiled five catches for 55 receiving yards and a receiving touchdown. Barkley’s performance also included a 79-yard touchdown run in which he evaded eight USC defenders and had one riveting cutback from the right side to the left side of the field to finish off the play. Barkley finished 2016 with 272 carries, 1,496 rushing yards, and 18 rushing touchdowns. His receiving statistics included 28 receptions, 402 receiving yards, and four receiving touchdowns. 2017 for the young running back is only going to get better.
Can Saquon Barkley win the Heisman?
Penn State is going to be entering the 2017 season as a national title contender. Expectations have not been this high in almost a decade. They have a lot of pieces back on offense, including another Heisman contender in Trace McSorley. Barkley will not miss a beat either as he’ll be running behind four returning offensive linemen. He will also be aided by the play calling of offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. The most crucial part of Penn State’s schedule next season will be a two game stretch at home against Michigan (October 21st) and a battle in Columbus against Ohio State (October 28th). If Penn State wins both of those games and Barkley excels, look out. Barkley will be in the Heisman conversation no matter what.
Barkley will also be returning as one of the top running backs in college football. Along with Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Oregon’s Royce Freeman, Barkley is among the top of his class. Among the other returning running backs, including LSU’s Derrius Guice and Alabama’s Bo Scarborough, not one of them has been as impactful to his team as Barkley is to Penn State football. Barkley has a chance to have the best running back season for Penn State since Larry Johnson in 2002 (271 carries, 2087 rushing yards, 20 rushing touchdowns). That year, Johnson was a Heisman finalist.
The major factor against Barkley’s path towards the Heisman in 2017 is that the Heisman has been considered a quarterback award in recent history. Since 2006, only two running backs (Mark Ingram in 2009 and Derrick Henry in 2015) have won the award. That still won’t stop Barkley from putting up numbers though. As long as Penn State remains a contender for the Big Ten title behind the leadership of Barkley, it is likely we will be seeing him in New York on December 9th.