It wasn’t something Saquon Barkley was willing to think about. At least not to discuss it publicly.
Though he won’t have his name called before Saturday’s game against Nebraska, it will almost certainly be Barkley’s final game in Beaver Stadium as the NFL and a projected first-round draft selection awaits in the spring.
“That’s not really on my mind,” Barkley said after a win over Rutgers. “When that time comes at the end of the year, that’s something I will sit down and talk to my family about, but I’m not really focused on that at all.
“We’ve still got three games here. When you start looking beyond what’s actually in front of you, you start messing up and start not being who you are and staying true to yourself. So you control what you can control.”
But it still figures to be an emotional afternoon for the junior, as the Nittany Lions look to give him one final memorable performance in front of a home crowd.
Nebraska would seem to be ripe for the husking.
With coach Mike Riley widely assumed to be on his way out with a new athletic director arriving in Lincoln, the Cornhuskers are foundering, surrendering 54 points and an unfathomable 409 rushing yards to Minnesota.
“He’s the absolute total package,” Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, a former Iowa linebacker, said of Barkley. “One of the best backs that has been in the league in some time. There’s been some great ones — when I played Penn State they had a great back, the years we played, Ki-Jana Carter — so I mean, Eddie George, Tyrone Wheatley, Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon. He’s right in the company of some greats, at least during my time.”
Still, last week looked to be a prime position for the Lions to get the ground game back on track against a Rutgers squad that ranked 86th nationally against the run.
Instead, it turned into one of Barkley’s most disappointing outings as his two short touchdown runs were overshadowed by the fact that he gained just 35 yards on 14 carries.
As Lions coach James Franklin pointed out earlier in the month after a loss to Michigan State, “It’s not a Saquon issue, it’s a team issue.”
A large part of it is the blocking in front of him, with issues that have been magnified with the absence of injured left tackle Ryan Bates.
“It’s like anything else — when they start getting praised and patted on the back and having success for finishing blocks, it becomes contagious,” Franklin said. “And we need more of that. Like any other position or any other unit or team, you need one guy to really start saying, ‘I’m the guy. Watch me. I’m going to show you how to do it.’ And then it becomes contagious for the group. So I’m looking forward to seeing who that’s going to be and when that’s going to be.”
In the meantime, Barkley’s Heisman Trophy hopes have taken a severe hit as his numbers have dipped and Baker Mayfield’s have peaked.
Whereas oddsmakers had Barkley out in front throughout October, Mayfield is now a massive favorite with the Oklahoma quarterback’s chances set at 1-20 this week — a bet of $20 would win $1 — by Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. Barkley is now at 20-1 and in third behind Stanford running back Bryce Love (8-1).
Barkley shook off any big picture talk on Saturday, but his tumbling Heisman stock clearly has current and former players disappointed.
The Lions’ last player to be invited to the Heisman ceremony was running back Larry Johnson, who topped 2,000 yards rushing back in 2002. During Saturday’s game he took to Twitter to voice his opinion.
“Seriously!?!?” Johnson wrote. “If I ever had a player on my team that has the potential to win, not runner-up but to WIN the Heisman, I’m going to get him the ball every chance I get … to the point where (it’s) downright selfish.”
While at Penn State, Johnson had made that point about his own playing time before finishing third in Heisman voting behind USC’s Carson Palmer and Iowa’s Brad Banks.
But feeding Barkley just to get him numbers would seem to be counterproductive in an offense that is designed to call plays after lining up and seeing what the defense is scheming.
“It’s frustrating because we all want him to have success in the running game,” quarterback Trace McSorley said. “We know we have a really good running attack and we want that to be successful. But with how teams are playing us the last couple of games — selling out to stop Saquon or stop the run and leaving us with one-on-one matchups, playing man-to-man or giving us access to easy throws — we know we have to take those.
“It’s something that’s almost a double-edged sword. We feel like we really want this running game to get going, but if teams are going to sell out, there’s no sense jamming a square peg into a round hole. If teams are going to give us the pass, that’s something that we’ve got to be willing to take.”