UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Nebraska’s hopes didn’t end the first time Saquon Barkley sped through defenders Saturday afternoon. But it was a sign that the Penn State running back’s Heisman Trophy campaign was about to be in full revival.
NU defensive coordinator Bob Diaco revisited that first Barkley touch multiple times a few hours later underneath a rain-soaked Beaver Stadium. Third-and-1 for the Nittany Lions at their own 35 on their first drive.
Facing a four-man front, with no linebacker on the boundary edge and a receiver sprinting downfield to take the cornerback out of the play, Barkley took a read-option handoff from quarterback Trace McSorley and accelerated down the sideline for a 65-yard touchdown.
“You got a great opportunity and you got some hats right there,” Diaco said. “And then it creases for an explosive-play touchdown. It’s just like, unreal. It’s terrible.”
By halftime, Barkley had accounted for 208 total yards and three scores on 19 touches. He added four more touches for 16 yards after the break and sat the final stretch of a 56-44 blowout the Huskers were never in past the first quarter.
The read option again terrorized the Blackshirts one week after they hemorrhaged 409 rushing yards to Minnesota. McSorley kept the ball nine times for 46 yards and a score, teaming with Barkley to help PSU churn out 263 rushing yards. Their 609 total yards were 47 shy of Nebraska’s all-time opponent record set by Oklahoma in 1956.
“We’re well aware of all of it,” Diaco said. “They didn’t do anything that we didn’t prepare. They didn’t run any formations or plays that the players didn’t practice and that we didn’t prepare against as a group.
“Kudos to Penn State and their players and their staff. It’s an excellent offense, a very explosive offense, and we’re not executing very well on defense right now. That’s obviously the understatement of the century.”
Barkley turned in a highlight on almost every drive he was in. He scored on a 1-yard run up the gut in the second quarter after his somersaulting score from 11 yards out was determined to be just shy of the goal line. He added a pair of 24-yard swing passes on which he exploded after the catch.
The 5-foot-11, 230-pound junior added an 8-yard score on a read option to put Penn State up 35-10 in the second quarter, shedding a tackle attempt by linebacker Dedrick Young on his way.
Barkley ran for 35 yards against Rutgers last weekend and 63 and 44 the two weeks before that. But he ran for 142 on 17 carries (9.3 average) in half a game Saturday.
“He’s fast, very fast,” linebacker Mo Barry said. “I’ve never seen someone run that fast on the field. Explosive, accelerates, he’s very fast, I ain’t gonna lie.”
Said linebacker Chris Weber: “He’s a heck of a talent. Runs hard, fast. He’s the whole package. He makes their offense go.”
Diaco and his defenders agreed the game plan for stopping Penn State was different from how they tried to slow Minnesota. They wanted to create “layers” on defense, with Huskers ready to help if someone found a crease in the formation.
Instead, it was more of the same struggles the Blackshirts have endured all year. They had players assigned to individual Penn State skill players, but still lost containment on a regular basis on read options. Barry said guys may not have been patient enough. Weber said there was a “snowball” effect when results didn’t go Nebraska’s way.
“We’re just trying to find things for the players,” Diaco said. “Like I said, it’s very, very hard right now. It’s hard executing right now. And my heart goes out to the players.
“I want so badly to help them in the game and the plays are hard right now. You’re watching it, and we gotta pull up our bootstraps and get ready.”
The Huskers pressured McSorley and netted two sacks — their second most in 11 games this fall — but missed on other opportunities. Other botched tackles led to more big plays as Penn State racked up 8.2 yards per play on a soaked field and foggy day.
“It can get really bad and it can look really bad,” Diaco said. “But it’s really not that … for me, the people of Nebraska, the players, high school prospects, people that work at the university, it’s a great, great place. It’s a very, very special place. And with just some more here and there, this thing will get turned right back around.”