CHICAGO — Forget, for a moment, all of the standout running backs Pat Fitzgerald has merely schemed against. Two decades ago, the Northwestern coach was tackling the Big Ten’s best himself, a star linebacker who twice won national defensive player of the year awards.
That would include Ohio State Heisman winner Eddie George and Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne, who would go on to break the all-time NCAA career rushing record.
At the moment, neither are on top of his personal rankings.
“You know (Saquon) Barkley is maybe the best player that I’ve ever seen on tape,” Fitzgerald said. “I’ve played against some pretty good backs, I’ve coached against some pretty good backs, but he’s just absolutely spectacular. He’s great in the run game, he’s great in protection, catching the ball out of the backfield, he’s a great return man.
“He does it all and he’s an outstanding football player.”
Of course, Fitzgerald’s list might be a tiny bit influenced by the fact that Barkley and No. 4 Penn State are coming to town on Saturday.
Barkley, who leads the nation in all-purpose yards, came out of September as the oddsmakers’ favorite to win the Heisman.
What has impressed his own coach the most is that he still hasn’t hit his ceiling from a physical standpoint.
“His body is still responding. He’s still responding in workouts like a freshman,” Lions coach James Franklin said. “Typically, as a freshman, you get in the weight room and you lift and you run and your body really reacts because you’ve never worked so hard in your life.
“But by the time you get to your third year, you don’t get the same type of results. His body is still reacting, and I think that’s probably the difference with him. Even at as high of a level as he was last year, he was still able to take another step.”
Opponents have certainly taken notice.
“He’s one of the most talented players I’ll ever play (against),” Wildcats standout defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster said. “He’s the best back — well, at least competing for the best back — that I have ever seen. We really have to limit him. It’s going to be tough, obviously.”
“He’s just a great player,” Fitzgerald said. “And I’ll be a huge fan of his after about 4 o’clock on Saturday, for the rest of the year, to win the Heisman. I’d vote for him.”
THREE AND OUT
Not to be forgotten
On his first trip to Ryan Field back in 2015, Barkley ran for 120 yards and two touchdowns. But he was upstaged by Northwestern’s own dynamic back, Justin Jackson, who tore up the Nittany Lions for 186 yards in a 23-21 Wildcats victory.
“Got a lot of respect for Justin Jackson, one of the more productive running backs in the Big Ten,” Franklin said. “It should be a really good challenge.”
Now a senior, Jackson needs just 84 more yards on the ground to break Damien Anderson’s all-time school record.
It hasn’t been an easy few weeks, however, as a leg injury during the non-conference schedule had him wearing a brace and playing at less than 100 percent in a loss at Wisconsin.
“I came out of it feeling good and should be much better this week. It doesn’t limit anything,” Jackson said. “At this point, at least for the last game, I had to wear the brace. That’s a little bit of an adjustment feel wise having that on my leg. I’m still able to do everything. Just trying to get the strength back, but I’m feeling good.”
As far as Penn State’s injuries, all eyes will be on tight end Mike Gesicki, who was knocked out of last week’s Indiana game in the second quarter with an undisclosed injury.
The senior was present and in uniform at the portion of Wednesday’s practice that was open to the media, though he was not in shoulder pads.
“I feel better and better about Mike every single day,” Franklin said Wednesday.
The other spot that bears watching is right tackle, where both Chasz Wright and Andrew Nelson have been battling injuries, necessitating a move there for Will Fries.
“I’m not going to get into really what’s going on at that position,” Franklin said Thursday on his weekly radio show. “But we’ve had a situation where we’ve had a returning starter, Nellie, he’s been limited. A returning starter in Chasz, he’s been limited for a number of reasons. And then we’re breaking in a redshirt freshman in Will Fries.
“The most important thing is we’re finding a way to get a win each week as these guys are developing. It hasn’t been perfect — no position is, no team is, no offense is — but I like the strides we’re making.”
Northwestern has had its own issues at right tackle, using multiple players in that spot.
“We must play better at right tackle, I mean, there’s no doubt about that,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s not a mystery. That performance was not good enough for us to be consistent on Saturday.”
Northwestern ranks 124th out of 129 FBS teams nationally in sacks allowed, having given up 15 in just four games.
Last week, Wisconsin dropped quarterback Clayton Thorson eight times, with the final one good for a game-clinching safety late in the fourth quarter in which a scrambling Thorson held onto the ball instead of throwing it away.
“We had a couple communication breakdowns, we had two guys get beat, we held the ball a couple of times, so it wasn’t one thing,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m sure it was well documented (as) all the O-line’s fault — which, that’s good, ‘cause they need it. You can’t have eight sacks and not have the O-line get beat up for it.”