Miles Sanders’ first thought was that it was a prank.
The Penn State running back had been recruited by most major programs in the country. So he had seen their collective Photoshop skills, which placed his likeness in all sorts of popular media and big moments.
Surely, then, this Sports Illustrated cover that everyone was sending to him on Tuesday morning was just another digital trick.
“I had people texting me, saying I was on the cover of Sports Illustrated — I thought it was a fake,” Sanders said. “A fake little edit. Then I was like, ‘Dang, that’s really Sports Illustrated.’
“But it’s a blessing. Probably something I can say I checked off my bucket list. But at the end of the day, what really matters is us getting the W.”
It was Sanders’ winning score in overtime last weekend that was captured on said cover. Otherwise the Nittany Lions would have been out front in that same season-opening issue as an upset victim of Appalachian State.
Instead, Sanders returns to his home city with his head high for Saturday night’s showdown with Pitt at Heinz Field.
After a slow start to his debut as the Lions’ feature back, he finished with 91 yards and two scores. Penn State gave him the ball on all four plays in overtime, ultimately punching it in from 4 yards out to set up the victory.
When it was over, Sanders sought out coach James Franklin to tell him, “I’ve waited two years for this.”
That would be two years as an understudy to record-setting running back Saquon Barkley, now with the New York Giants. Though there’s no shame to being a backup to a talent like Barkley, it was still a humbling experience for Sanders, who was rated as the country’s No. 1 running back in the 2016 signing class.
So it was important to him, then, to call up Barkley himself while still at Beaver Stadium on Saturday.
“He just said good game. He critiqued me, what he saw and what he thinks I can do better,” Sanders said. “But he liked the way I handled myself, I guess. With all the chatter about me filling big shoes and stuff, he just told me like everybody else told me, just be me.”
Not that it’s easy. Even when Sanders was brought on for an interview later in the week on the Big Ten Network, one of the chyrons that flashed underneath him when he spoke was “Saquon Barkley’s teammate: 2016-17.”
Yeah, it’s still going to take some time to carve out his own piece of history.
“I’m happy for Miles,” Franklin said. “You look around college football, and to me, it’s a concern that we’ve made some rules to make it easier to transfer. And I get it. But I worry. Because I think all of us are using the game of football to teach life lessons, and the lesson of life is not to leave to go to the path of least resistance — it’s to battle and fight and earn a job and overcome adversity.
“Miles is a great example of that. He is sitting behind Saquon Barkley, maybe the best running back on the planet, and he just kept grinding and kept working and kept staying positive. And I think he is going to have a huge year for us.”
THREE AND OUT
Sanders will be in the spotlight trying to do what Barkley could not two years ago — beat the Panthers in Pittsburgh.
Not that Barkley didn’t give his best, scoring five touchdowns in a 42-39 loss. But the Lions were overpowered soundly up front on both sides of the ball in 2016, particularly in the first half as Pitt built a huge lead.
Against the Mountaineers last week, the Lions scored just 10 points in the first half, and the offensive line is taking it upon themselves to change the script this week.
“I think we took away from that game that we’ve gotta start faster,” starting guard Connor McGovern, of Lake-Lehman, said. “Obviously we scored on the first drive, but we didn’t score again until the end of the second quarter. We’ve gotta come out and put our foot down on the gas and compete right away. Against some other teams, we wont be able to do (what we did against App State). We’ve gotta come out and start stronger.”
Pitt gashed Penn State for 341 rushing yards in 2016, using a slew of misdirection plays to keep the Lions defense off-balance. In last year’s 33-14 win by Penn State, the Panthers had success with repeated shovel passes.
In 2016, 2017 and now 2018, Pitt opened the season with an FCS opponent and stayed as basic as possible on offense, saving their true plans for the Lions in the second week.
“If you look at (Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi), he plays very vanilla in game one and has some things that he’s going to show in game two … that he hasn’t shown,” Franklin said. “So that’s where you gotta trust your training and your fundamentals and your techniques and your rules, because there’s going to be a few things that come up that we haven’t seen or expected.”
Sanders played his high school ball at Woodland Hills’ “Wolvarena” in Turtle Creek, a 20-minute drive east of Heinz Field.
Pitt recruited him heavily along with another five-star prospect, defensive back Lamont Wade, who starred for Class A powerhouse Clairton 30 minutes south of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ stadium.
“I grew up playing on Heinz Field,” said Wade, whose teams were a staple there at district title games hosted at the stadium. “So I’m familiar with the environment. So it’s just going to be real good to get back out there and play the game.”
Like Sanders’ situation last year, Wade is still a second-teamer as a sophomore, backing up Garrett Taylor at safety. It was a point that Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi himself brought up on his radio show this week when asked about him.
“You don’t see him a whole lot,” Narduzzi said. “You don’t see him a whole lot out there.” The implication perhaps being that he would be playing more had he chosen Pitt.
That was part of the latest round of passive-aggressive snipes between coaches leading up to the game, which Pitt labels as the Super Bowl and Penn State labels as, uh, one of 12 Super Bowls on the schedule.
Go ahead and commence the eye-rolling, but it’s nothing unusual heading into this, the third of a four-game series between the archrival schools.
After winning in 2016, Pitt coaches had keychains made in the shape of Pennsylvania with the score etched in the middle. When Penn State won in 2017, Franklin declared that beating Pitt was “just like beating Akron,” whom the Lions had thumped a week earlier.
“Anybody who wants to argue and say that this is no different than any other week — it is,” Narduzzi said this week. “That’s a fact. If you want to ignore it, you can ignore it. But it’s a big game.”
“I think it’s still being misinterpreted,” Franklin said a day later. “I hear people saying this is a big game, and anybody that says this isn’t a big game is kidding themselves. This is the biggest game in the world. … I’ve never denied that, from the very beginning. This is the most important game on our schedule because it’s the game we’re playing this week.”
Reach Derek Levarse at 570-991-6396 or on Twitter @TLdlevarse