STATE COLLEGE — Three touchdowns, 224 total yards and another major school record later, Saquon Barkley wouldn’t confirm it was his last performance at Beaver Stadium.
But the star running back did make one thing clear after Penn State’s 56-44 shredding of Nebraska on Saturday.
“I’ve got two games left,” Barkley said. “I’m playing in the bowl game.”
And though it won’t be in the College Football Playoff — Ohio State clinched the Big Ten East on Saturday to end the Nittany Lions’ title reign — Barkley and a resurgent running game have Penn State well positioned to reach a New Year’s Six bowl with a win in next week’s finale at Maryland.
Barkley had made some headlines in the offseason by saying that he understood the decisions made by last year’s top draft-eligible running backs — Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffery — to skip their respective bowl games to stay healthy for the NFL.
After breaking Lydell Mitchell’s 46-year-old career rushing touchdown record against the freefalling Cornhuskers, however, Barkley said his situation wasn’t the same because he wasn’t battling injuries like Fournette and McCaffrey had.
“It’s important to me because I love football,” Barkley said. “God’s blessing me with another opportunity to play the sport I love. And to be really honest, it’s my teammates. If my teammates came out and said, ‘Don’t play in the bowl game, you don’t need to,’ I probably wouldn’t.
“But at the end of the day, I’m playing for my teammates. I’m not playing for media … I’m playing for my teammates, I’m playing for my brothers. And also my coaches, too. From all offseason, it was blood, sweat and tears. And I wouldn’t be the player I am without those people — and my family, too.”
Of course, there’s little doubt that Barkley will ultimately declare for the draft after that bowl game. And there’s little doubt that’s the advice his coach gave him back in the summer.
“I told Saquon Barkley what he should do before the season started,” James Franklin said. “I’m not sharing that. That’s between me, Saquon and his family. … But I try to give all my players advice that I’d tell my son.
“If I think they should leave early now, then I tell them that. If IBM came to our computer engineering department and offered a junior a $12 million contract, they’d be gone.”
Saturday proved another example of why a major contract is in Barkley’s near future.
After three long weeks that saw Barkley largely bottled up in the run game, he blew his frustrations away on the opening drive with a 65-yard touchdown run.
He found the end zone two more times and finished with 158 yards yards on the ground to go with six catches for 66 yards before taking most of the second half off.
By halftime, the No. 10 Lions (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten) had humiliated the Huskers to the tune of 42-10 on the scoreboard, outgaining Nebraska 439-77. Penn State had six touchdowns to Nebraska’s four first downs despite spotting the Huskers 10 quick points in the first quarter on special teams miscues.
Barkley himself had 142 yards on the ground at the break, matching his rushing total from the previous three games combined.
Penn State scored touchdowns on five straight drives in the first half while Nebraska (4-7, 3-5) had five straight three-and-outs.
“The first half was probably the best half of football we’ve played,” said quarterback Trace McSorley, who threw for 325 yards, ran for 66 and scored four touchdowns himself.
“We just got off to a horrible start to the game, and Penn State was really good,” said Huskers coach Mike Riley, who could be coaching his final game in Lincoln next week. “Of course, (Barkley) made a good run. It got out of hand right off the bat. … Our problems early is what has happened all year. We couldn’t do much running the ball, and we gave up too much running the ball.
“The only thing I could say, I’m really proud of the team in the second half.”
Penn State led by 32 points (56-24) in the fourth quarter and proceeded to yank nearly all of its starters.
The Huskers first-team offense, led by quarterback Tanner Lee, answered with three touchdowns in the final seven minutes to turn a blowout into the highest scoring game in Beaver Stadium history.
“We didn’t play up to our standard in the second half. Obviously it leaves a little bit of a bad taste in your mouth,” said Franklin, who admitted he struggles with picking the right time to go with mass substitutions in a lopsided game.
But, he said, he wasn’t going to let the finish mar a day that saw the Lions offense finish with a season-best 609 yards of offense.
“There’s too many miserable coaches in the country that aren’t happy after wins,” Franklin said. “We’re going to enjoy this one for a few hours and then we’re going to get back to work.”
No. 10 Penn State 56, Nebraska 44
Nebraska`10`0`14`20 — 44
Penn State`14`28`0`14 — 56
PSU — Saquon Barkley 65 run (Tyler Davis kick), 14:03
UNL — Drew Brown 27 field goal, 9:18
UNL — Devine Ozigbo 1 run (Brown kick), 6:17
PSU — Barkley 1 run (Davis kick), 2:40
PSU — Trace McSorley 9 run (Davis kick), 11:53
PSU — Mike Gesicki 9 pass from McSorley (Davis kick), 9:23
PSU — Barkley 8 run (Davis kick), 4:36
PSU — DeAndre Thompkins 15 pass from McSorley (Davis kick), 1:19
UNL — Mikale Wilbon 24 run (Brown kick), 6:40
UNL — De’Mornay Pierson-El 22 pass from Tanner Lee (Brown kick), 2:34
PSU — Gesicki 17 pass from McSorley (Davis kick), 13:59
PSU — Nick Bowers 15 pass from Tommy Stevens (Davis kick), 10:13
UNL — Stanley Morgan 8 pass from Lee (Brown kick), 6:32
UNL — Wilbon 1 run (Brown kick), 1:20
UNL — Jack Stoll 3 pass from Lee, 0:00
Time of Possession`29:49`30:11
RUSHING — UNL, Mikale Wilbon 10-53, Devine Ozigbo 7-12, Jaylin Bradley 1-9, J.D. Spielman 1-8, Tyjon Lindsey 1-1, Tanner Lee 6-(minus 16). PSU, Saquon Barkley 17-158, Trace McSorley 9-46, Tommy Stevens 5-31, Miles Sanders 4-28.
PASSING — UNL, Lee 26-41-0-399. PSU, McSorley 24-36-0-325, Stevens 2-3-0-21.
RECEIVING — UNL, Stanley Morgan 7-185, J.D. Spielman 6-96, Tyler Hoppes 6-43, De’Mornay Pierson-El 4-54, Wilbon 2-18, Jack Stoll 1-3. PSU, Barkley 6-66, Juwan Johnson 5-105, Mike Gesicki 4-47, DaeSean Hamilton 4-42, Stevens 2-22, Saeed Blacknall 1-22, DeAndre Thompkins 1-15, Nick Bowers 1-15, Tom Pancoast 1-6, Sanders 1-6.
INTERCEPTIONS — None.
MISSED FIELD GOALS — None.
A — 106,722.