Saquon Barkley and J.T. Barrett both got the big-picture questions this week. The respective stars for Penn State and Ohio State largely shrugged them off.
Players, especially Heisman Trophy candidates like these two, can’t afford to do much but focus on Saturday’s showdown in Columbus between the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes.
Nevertheless, the spotlight will be firmly on the Penn State running back and the Ohio State quarterback in a game that will greatly affect the Big Ten race, the College Football Playoff picture and, yes, the Heisman discussion.
Barkley’s teammates have gotten the sense that they’re watching a Heisman winner in the making.
“Yeah, definitely,” defensive lineman Ryan Buchholz said after watching Barkley rack up 161 yards from scrimmage on Saturday against Michigan, the nation’s top-rated defense. “I know he doesn’t want us talking about it — or me to put it out there — but definitely.”
As preseason favorite Sam Darnold of USC faded in September, Barkley became the frontrunner, especially after his school-record 358 all-purpose yards against Iowa.
A new challenger has since come forward in Stanford running back Bryce Love, the national rushing leader who is averaging more than 10 yards per carry. But according to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, Barkley is back out in front of the field this week, installed as a 4-7 favorite with Love in second at 2-1 odds.
Barkley’s all-around game has given him the edge — the junior is Penn State’s leading receiver with 32 catches for 448 yards while Love has just four grabs for 19 yards.
It’s that versatility that has the Buckeyes most concerned.
“You have different ways of bottling up great running backs,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “It’s hard, especially this guy, really hard. But the fact that they motion him out and create matchup nightmares, that’s what makes this guy — I’d be careful to say this — but he’s as good an all-purpose running back we’ve seen. And that’s 30 years.”
Put more succinctly?
“The dude’s a monster,” Buckeyes linebacker Jerome Baker said. “I’m very excited to go against him because he can do it all. Pass block, run routes, run the ball, jump over you, run through you.”
Still, if Baker and the Ohio State defense do their job Saturday and pull out a win, it could be Barrett who benefits most in the Heisman race.
Barrett and Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield are next behind Barkley and Love at 10-1, according to oddsmakers.
But despite going 32-5 as a four-year starter and three-year captain for the Buckeyes, despite accounting for more touchdowns than anyone else in Big Ten history — 20 more than Drew Brees and counting — there are still doubts about him in Columbus and beyond.
An early season home loss to Mayfield and the Sooners led to calls for Meyer to switch quarterbacks.
He stuck with his senior signal-caller. And since that game, Ohio State has won five straight, scoring more than everyone else in the country.
“I mean, I’m the same person that people said that they wanted to bench,” Barrett told reporters in Columbus this week. “I’m the same person now who is playing well now. … Same guy.”
Penn State knows that better than anyone. This will be the fourth time the Lions have faced Barrett. Though he split time with Cardale Jones in the 2015 meeting, it was Barrett who broke open the game.
“J.T. Barrett has been playing at Ohio State for I think this is his 16th year, maybe going on 17,” Lions coach James Franklin joked. “One of the most successful quarterbacks in Big Ten history and nationally. I mean you’ve got to just completely respect everything that that guy’s been able to do in his career. And everything I know about him and have heard about him, he’s a class act.
“So that’s going to be a challenge for us because he can beat you with his legs, he can beat you with his arm, he can beat you with his mind.”
And while Barkley and Barrett both aren’t eager to talk about how this year’s game will affect their legacies, it’s undeniable that this series has boosted both of their careers in the past.
Barrett’s first game against the Lions in 2014 saw him play through the second half and two overtimes with an injured knee. And the Buckeyes’ eventual national title win was almost derailed when they trailed Penn State in the first overtime — until Barrett scored twice to beat the Lions in a White Out game.
”That was the ultimate,” Meyer said. “I haven’t seen many players do what he did in that game. … That’ll be part of his legacy.”
Likewise for Barkley, his first game against the Buckeyes came on the road in 2015. With Ezekiel Elliott on the other sideline, he put up nearly 200 yards rushing and drew rave reviews from an Ohio State defense loaded with NFL draft picks, as well as Elliott himself.
A smile crept across Barkley’s face as he recalled the game.
“That was my freshman year. I was a young guy,” Barkley told reporters in State College after Wednesday’s practice. “So I was kind of in awe of being on the field with Braxton Miller and Zeke Elliott, obviously coming from high school and watching the highlight tapes, especially of Braxton.
“…That game definitely boosted my confidence up a lot. A lot of those guys, you look back on it that year, three of those guys (were drafted) in the first round. Eleven of them got drafted. And we were able as a team to have success in the run game, so that definitely did boost my confidence up a lot.”
Heading into Saturday, both Barkley and Barrett may be playing the best football of their careers.
“I would say (now) I’m just a lot smarter as a football player,” Barkley said. “Understanding the game, understanding situations, understanding the playbook — blitzes and all that. I just think I’ve developed into an all-around player, and I’m willing to do it all.”